When to Head for Your Bunker
By Bryan Caplan
Two strangely divergent reactions:
1. When economists discuss worst-case macroeconomic scenarios, they often say stuff like, “Head for your bunker,” “Dig a hole and jump in,” and “Hopefully you’ve been hoarding canned goods.”
2. When foreign policy experts discuss worst-case war foreign policy scenarios, they don’t. In fact, they’re likely to segue into sermons about courage, defying evil, and Churchill’s “never surrender” speech.
The strangeness, in case it’s not obvious, is that even another Great Depression would have a minimal body count, while a pint-sized nuclear war would kill millions. In the broad scheme of things, economic crises are disappointments, while wars are disasters.
Sure, you can use cost-benefit analysis to show that the Great Recession had a much higher social cost than a small war. But if distribution ever matters, it matters in war. Suppose a million Americans die in a nuclear inferno. With standard value of life numbers, that’s a loss of $7 trillion – well below most estimates of the cost of the Great Recession. But who can doubt that a million violent deaths would have been far more tragic than the Great Recession, because the million victims lose everything they have. To quote Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Yes, I know that talk of bunkers, holes, and canned goods is intended as dark humor. But the humor spreads confusion nonetheless. If you live in the First World, economic crises are only a First World Problem. Major wars are macabre no matter where they happen.