Guns and Ice Cream

I’ve gotten some pushback on the line from my decarbonization piece that “wartime mobilization did not crowd out civilian production.” More than one person has told me they agree with the broader argument but don’t find that claim believable. Will Boisvert writes in comments:

Huh? The American war economy was an *austerity* economy. There was no civilian auto production or housing construction for the duration. There were severe housing shortages, and riots over housing shortages. Strikes were virtually banned. Millions of soldiers lived in barracks, tents or foxholes, on rations. So yeah, there were drastic trade-offs between guns and butter (which was rationed for civilians).

It’s true that there were no new cars produced during the war, and very little new housing.1 But this doesn’t tell us what happened to civilian output in general. For most of the war, wartime planning involved centralized allocation of a handful of key resources — steel, aluminum, rubber — that were the most important constraints on military production. This obviously ruled out making cars, but most civilian production wasn’t directly affected by wartime controls. 2 If we want to look at what happened to civilian production overall, we have to look at aggregate measures.

The most comprehensive discussions of this I’ve seen are in various pieces by Hugh Rockoff.3 Here’s the BEA data on real (inflation-adjusted) civilian and military production, as he presents it:

Civilian and military production in constant dollars. Source: H. Rockoff, ‘The United States: from ploughshares into swords’ in M. Harrison, ed, The Economics of World War II

As you can see, civilian and military production rose together in 1941, but civilian production fell in 1942, once the US was officially at war. So there does seem to be some crowding out. But looking at the big picture, I think my claim is defensible. From 1939 to its peak in 1944, annual military production increased by 80 percent of prewar GDP. The fall in real civilian production over this period was less than 4 percent of prewar GDP. So essentially none of the increase in military output came at the expense of civilian output; it was all additional to it. And civilian production began rising again before the end of the war; by 1945 it was well above 1939 levels.

Production is not the same as living standards. As it happens, civilian investment fell steeply during the war — in 1943-44, it was only about one third its prewar level. If we look at civilian consumption rather than output, we see a steady rise during the war. By the official numbers, real per-capita civilian consumption was 5 percent higher in 1944 – the peak of war production — than it had been in 1940. Rockoff believes that, although the BLS did try to correct for the distortions created by rationing and price controls, the official numbers still understate the inflation facing civilians. But even his preferred estimate shows a modest increase in per-capita civilian consumption over this period.

We can avoid the problems of aggregation if we look at physical quantities of particular goods. For example, shoes were rationed, but civilians nonetheless bought about 5 percent more shoes annually in 1942-1944 than they had in 1941. Civilian meat consumption increased by about 10 percent, from 142 pounds of meat per person in 1940 to 154 pounds per person in 1944. As it happens, butter seems to be one of the few categories of food where consumption declined during the war. Here’s Rockoff’s discussion:

Consumption of edible fats, particularly butter, was down somewhat during the war. Thus in a strict sense the United States did not have guns and butter. The reasons are not clear, but the long-term decline in butter consumption probably played a role. Ice cream consumption, which had been rising for a long time, continued to rise. Thus, the United States did have guns and ice cream. The decline in edible fat consumption was a major concern, and the meat rationing system was designed to provide each family with an adequate fat ration. The concern about fats aside, [civilian] food production held up well.

As this passage suggests, rationing in itself should not be seen as a sign of increased scarcity. It is, rather, an alternative to the price mechanism for the allocation of scarce goods. In the wartime setting, it was introduced where demand would exceed supply at current prices, and where higher prices were considered undesirable. In this sense, rationing is the flipside of price controls. Rationing can also be used to deliver a more equitable distribution than prices would — especially important where we are talking about a necessity like food or shoes.

The fundamental reason why rationing was necessary in the wartime US was not that civilian production had fallen, but because civilian incomes were rising so rapidly. Civilian consumption might have been 5 percent higher in 1944 than in 1940; but aggregate civilian wages and salaries were 170 percent higher. Prices rose somewhat during the war years; but without price controls and rationing inflation would undoubtedly have been much higher. Rockoff’s comment on meat probably applies to a wide range of civilian goods: “Wartime shortages … were the result of large increases in demand combined with price controls, rather than decreases in supply.”

Another issue, which Rockoff touches on only in passing, is the great compression of incomes during the war. Per Piketty and co., the income share of the top 10 percent dropped from 45 percent in 1940 to 33 percent in 1945. If civilian consumption rose modestly in the aggregate, it must have risen by more for the non-wealthy majority. So I think it’s pretty clear that in the US, civilian living standards generally rose during the war, despite the vast expansion of military production.

You might argue that even if civilian consumption rose, it’s still wrong to say there was no crowding out, since it could have risen even more without the war. Of course one can’t know what would have happened; even speculation depends on what the counterfactual scenario is. But certainly it didn’t look this way at the time. Real per capita income in the US increased by less than 2 percent in total over the decade 1929-1939.  So the growth of civilian consumption during the war was actually faster than in the previous decade. There was a reason for the popular perception that “we’ve never had it so good.”

It is true that there was already some pickup in growth in 1940, before the US entered the war (but rearmament was already under way). But there was no reason to think that faster growth was fated to happen regardless of military production. If you read stuff written at the time, it’s clear that most people believed the 1930s represented, at least to some degree, a new normal; and no one believed that the huge increase in production of the war years would have happened on its own.

Will also writes:

War production itself was profoundly irrational. Expensive capital goods were produced, thousands of tanks and warplanes and warships, whose service lives spanned just a few hours. Factories and production lines were built knowing that in a year or two there would be no market at all for their products.

I agree that military production itself is profoundly irrational. Abolishing the military is a program I fully support. But I don’t think the last sentence follows. Much wartime capital investment could be, and was, rapidly turned to civilian purposes afterwards. One obvious piece of evidence for this is the huge increase in civilian output in 1946; there’s no way that production could increase by one third in a single year except by redirecting plant and equipment built for the military.

And of course much wartime investment was in basic industries for which reconversion wasn’t even necessary. The last chapter of Mark Wilson’s Destructive Creation makes a strong case that postwar privatization of factories built during the war was very valuable for postwar businesses, and that acquiring them was a top priority for business leaders in the reconversion period. 4 By one estimate, in the late 1940s around a quarter of private manufacturing capital consisted of plant and equipment built by the government during the war and subsequently transferred to private business. In 1947, for example, about half the nation’s aluminum came from plants built by the government during the war for aircraft production. All synthetic rubber — about half total rubber production — came from plants built for the military. And so on. While not all wartime investment was useful after the war, it’s clear that a great deal was.

I think people are attracted to the idea of wartime austerity because we’ve all been steeped in the idea of scarcity – that economic problems consist of the allocation of scarce means among alternative ends, in Lionel Robbins’ famous phrase. Aggregate demand is, in that sense, a profoundly subversive idea – it suggests that’s what’s really scarce isn’t our means but our wants. Most people are doing far less than they could be, given the basic constraints of the material world, to meet real human needs. And markets are a weak and unreliable tool for redirecting our energies to something better. World War II is the biggest experiment to date on the limits of boosting output through a combination of increased market demand and central planning. And it suggests that, altho supply constraints are real — wartime controls on rubber and steel were there for a reason – in general we are much, much farther from those constraints than we normally think.




  1. Since the housing stock is long-lived, the lack of new construction didn’t do much to reduce the supply of housing. Limits on construction were outweighed by the shift into military housing, so average persons per dwelling actually fell a bit during the war. That said, Will is right that there were acute housing shortages in some cities that were centers of wartime production.
  2. The best source on the mechanics of wartime planning is Paul Koistinen’s Arsenal of World War II.
  3. Rockoff himself has made the same comparison with the response tf climate change, and reached the same conclusion: The experience of wartime “mobilization suggests … that large scale projects involving the building of alternative energy sources or moving populations from low lying coastal areas could … probably could be accomplished without seriously endangering current living standards.” That said, he adds the caveat that a WWII-scale mobilization might require a similar political consensus that the country faces an “existential and immediate threat.”
  4. I reviewed the book here.