WHAT DO the war in Iraq and the economic recovery in the United States have in common? More than one might expect, to judge from the last couple of rounds of US growth figures.
The war has been a large part of the justification for the Bush administration to run ever-widening budget deficits, and those deficits, predicated largely on military spending, have in turn pumped money into the economy and provided the stimulus that low interest rates and tax cuts, on their own, could never achieve.
The result, according to economists, is a variant on Keynesianism that has particular appeal for Republicans. Instead of growing the government in general - pumping resources into public works, health care and education, say, which would have an immediate knock-on effect on sorely needed job creation - the policy focuses on those areas that represent obvious conservative and business-friendly constituencies. Which is to say, the military and, even more specifically, the military contractors that tend to be big contributors to Republican Party funds.
"It may be very inefficient and obviously not fair, but it is nevertheless causing almost 5 per cent more money to be pumped into the economy than is being taken out in tax revenues," observed Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "At the same time, it fits into the broader ideological goals of the administration because they can paint it as part of a national emergency, the fight against terrorism, the fight against Saddam Hussein, and so on."
During the second quarter of 2003, when the war in Iraq was in full swing, some 60 per cent of the 3.3 per cent GDP growth rate was attributable to military spending. Expenditure on manpower and weaponry was relatively flat, according to Professor Pollin's analysis, while the lion's share of the stimulus came from the multi- billion dollar contracts handed out to Halliburton, Bechtel and other private contractors.
A smaller proportion of the roaring 8.2 per cent growth recorded for the third quarter was directly attributable to the military, but Professor Pollin and others argue that it is still the military that is driving the deficit, and the deficit - budgeted at about $500 billion (pounds 270bn) for next year - that is driving the recovery.
Just last month, the Pentagon awarded a $4 billion contract to California company Northrop Grumman to work on the Star Wars missile defence programme. It is the sort of figure that can regenerate the economy of an entire region. California - the state where US economic booms have a tendency to begin and end - is also a beneficiary of the boom in security-related spending, since much modern security paraphernalia depends on Silicon Valley computer technology.
The Bush administration itself prefers to attribute the recovery to its tax cuts, targeted disproportionately towards the richest Americans. Many non-administration economists, however, say this is nonsense, and that the tax cuts are far more political than they are stimulative. A more significant role has been played by buoyant household spending, helped by low mortgage interest rates which have inspired many homeowners to borrow against the rising value of their properties. But there are signs that interest rates are now on their way back up and that the refinancing …