The Economics of World War I

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The total cost of World War I to the United States (was) approximately $32 billion, or 52 percent of gross national product at the time.

Did World War I produce a major economic break from the past in the United States? Did the U.S. economy change in some fundamental and lasting ways as a result of that war? NBER Research Associate Hugh Rockoff addresses these questions in his recent study Until It's Over, Over There: The U.S. Economy in World War I (NBER Working Paper No. 10580). After surveying the U.S. mobilization and financing for the war, Rockoff concludes that perhaps the greatest impact of World War I was a shift in the landscape of ideas about economics and about the proper role of government in economic activities.

When the war began, the U.S. economy was in recession. But a 44-month economic boom ensued from 1914 to 1918, first as Europeans began purchasing U.S. goods for the war and later as the United States itself joined the battle. "The long period of U.S. neutrality made the ultimate conversion of the economy to a wartime basis easier than it otherwise would have been," writes Rockoff. "Real plant and equipment were added, and because they were added in response to demands from other countries already at war, they were added precisely in those sectors where they would be needed once the U.S. entered the war."

Entry into the war in 1917 unleashed massive U.S. federal spending which shifted national production from civilian to war goods. Between 1914 and 1918, some 3 million people were added to the military and half a million to the government. Overall, unemployment declined from 7.9 percent to 1.4 percent in this period, in part because workers were drawn in to new manufacturing jobs and because the military draft removed from many young men from the civilian labor force.

Rockoff estimates the total cost of World War I to the United States at approximately $32 billion, or 52 percent of gross national product at the time. He breaks down the financing of the U.S. war effort as follows: 22 percent in taxes, 58 percent through borrowings from the public, and 20 percent in money creation. The War Revenue Act of 1917 taxed "excess profits" -- profits exceeding an amount determined by the rate of return on capital in a base period -- by some 20 to 60 percent, and the tax rate on income starting at $50,000 rose from 1.5 percent in 1913-15 to more than 18 percent in 1918. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo crisscrossed the country peddling war bonds, even enlisting the help of Hollywood stars and Boy Scouts. The prevalence of patriotic themes created social pressure to purchase the "Liberty bonds" (and, after the armistice, the "Victory bonds"), but in practice the new bondholders did not make a tangible personal sacrifice in buying war bonds, since the yields on these debt instruments were comparable to those on standard municipal bonds at the time. As Rockoff notes, "patriotic motives were not sufficient to alter market prices of assets during the war."

As part of the war effort, the U.S. government also attempted to guide economic activity via centralized price and production controls administered by the War Industries Board, the Food Administration, and the Fuel Administration. Rockoff judges that the overall impact of these programs on reallocating resources was "rather small." Timing played a role, since some of the agencies were only established once the United States entered the war, and they took time to begin fulfilling their roles. Also, management problems emerged. For example, the War Industries Board attempted to create a "priorities system" for determining the order in which producers would fill government contracts for industrial goods. Unfortunately, all policymakers gave their order the highest rating ("A"). Leaders then created several higher priority ratings (such as "A1"), with much the same result. "Replacing price signals with priorities is not as simple as it sounds," surmises Rockoff.

Finally, the author assesses the legacies of World War I for the U.S. economy. When the war began, the United States was a net debtor in international capital markets, but following the war the United States began investing large amounts internationally, particularly Latin America, thus "taking on the role traditionally played by Britain and other European capital exporters." With Britain weakened after the war, New York emerged "as London's equal if not her superior in the contest to be the world's leading financial center."

In matters of economic ideology, Rockoff argues that, although the U.S. government took on such an active role in economic affairs during the war, this evolution did not ratchet up the government role in peacetime. Subsequent increases in federal spending resulted mainly from war-related matters (such as veterans' benefits), and the most of the wartime regulatory agencies soon disappeared due to the efforts of conservative politicians. Nevertheless, the successful wartime experience "increased the confidence on the left that central planning was the best way to meet a national crisis, certainly in wartime, and possibly in peacetime as well." This view became increasingly important after the Democrats reached power during the Great Depression. "Almost every government program undertaken in the 1930s reflected a World War I precedent," explains Rockoff, "and...many of the people brought in to manage New Deal agencies had learned their craft in World War I." The author concludes that the scope and speed of government expansion in the 1930s were likely greater because of the impact of the war on the world view of new economic and political leaders, who in turn inspired future generations of reformers. "For America, to sum up," writes Rockoff, "the most important long-run impact of the war may have been in the realm of ideas."

-- Carlos Lozada