Central Planning in World War II
By David Henderson
In my Veteans Day tribute to economist Richard Timberlake yesterday, I highlighted his experiences in World War II as a pilot of a B-17 bomber. I didn’t mention his economic insights in his book, They Never Saw Me Then, because that was not my focus.
Still, he did present some interesting thoughts about central planning, both in pilot training and in the allocation of gasoline.
On pilot training, Timberlake writes:
I found out many decades later that this kind of output [3,000 pilots a month] turned into “overproduction.” When no market forces are present to allocate resources, and production is a result of command decisions, specialized resources may be used in most unspecialized ways. As a plethora of pilot trainees congested the training fields a few months later, cadets who had expected to get flight training were suddenly grounded and told that they had no future as pilots in the Air Force. Many of them were reassigned to other services, and others found themselves doing menial ground duty chores simply because the need for their services as pilots had gone to zero.
On gasoline, he wrote:
Then, the unbelievable happened. With enemy forces in full retreat, Patton’s tanks ran out of gas near the French-German border! The German armies then had a chance to regroup and reorganize their defenses. What a debacle of misallocated resources! With the gas that 1,500 B-17s used on one mission–approximately 3,000,000 gallons, Patton’s tanks with [Omar] Bradley’s armies could have ended the war in the next few weeks. Where were the Services of Supply when we needed them? Had it been their tails that were on the line, Patton would have had his gas. But the breakthrough stalled at the German border, and the war lasted nine more hellish months.
Note his exquisite combination of numeracy, economic analysis of incentives, and outrage. His whole book is like that.
After my piece appeared yesterday, Dick, who earned his Ph.D. as a dissertation student of Milton Friedman in the 1950s, wrote me. Among other things, he stated:
By the way, I gave Milton F. a copy of the book a few years before he died, and he replied that he it was a “page turner that he could not put down.” Boy, do we need him now.