Sometimes there’s a news story that serves as a nexus of crucial issues for understanding the world we live in. This week served up such a story. It revolved around the seemingly simple question: can the US afford to fund two wars at the same time?
The question was asked to Joe Biden who retorted that America is the most powerful nation in history and so of course it can. That’s what’s called a non sequitur in first year philosophy class. But Biden’s quip does work nicely to formulate what is perhaps the only principle that has guided US foreign policy in the decades since the fall of the USSR: we can do whatever we like because nobody can stop us. Of course, that’s pretty much been true. Although, it’s one of those statements that’s true until it isn’t.
The same question about whether the US could afford two wars was asked to Janet Yellen in an interview on British television and she enthusiastically responded that yes, of course, the US could afford it. Yellen is the treasury secretary and so we assume that she should know what the US can and can’t afford. But therein lies a crucial distinction. The word “afford” has a purely financial connotation these days. But it was not always so.
Long-time readers know my love of etymology. Seemingly all the etymology I have done recently has involved Latin words. So, it’s a pleasant change of pace to have an English word to etymologise upon.
“Afford” comes from Old English where it meant to accomplish, contribute or carry out.
Back in the feudal days, monetary transactions were rare and so the word “afford” was less about whether you had cash and more about whether you could get the job done. “Can you afford a barn” did not mean “have you got enough money to have a barn built?” It meant “can you build a barn”? Do you have the materials and knowledge to carry out the task?
It’s only in recent centuries that the word “afford” has taken on the purely monetary meaning that we give it these days. That meaning has become even more acute in the post-war years as the bankers have taken over the world and financialised everything. So dominant has this mindset become that Janet Yellen gets asked whether we can afford another war in the same way you might ask a friend whether they can afford a new pair of designer jeans or dinner at an upmarket restaurant.
“Well, things are a little tight this month. But I think we can fit another war in, Tom.”
Yellen’s answer that yes, of course, we can afford it is predicated on her understanding that everything in the world can be bought with money and, since the USA can apparently print trillions of new dollars with no consequences, it can “afford” anything at all. But Ukraine and Israel are not launching dollar bills at their enemies, they are launching missiles. “Can the USA afford another war” is not a question of money but of ammunition and it’s not answerable by the treasury secretary but by the department of defence or whoever’s job it is to count the bombs and missiles.
That’s where the double meaning in the word “afford” is useful. Using the old meaning of the word, the question of whether the US can afford another war would translate as “can the US successfully carry out another war”.
But this new question implies that there is a definition by which the USA can be said to have “won” the war and that is precisely what is missing. Unless I missed the memo, there has been no definition given by which the war in Ukraine and an impending war in the Middle East could be “won”. This is especially true for the latter since nobody knows what sort of of conflagration it could turn into.
It reminds me how, towards the end of WW1, the British unions forced Lloyd George to publicly state the conditions to end the war. Until then, the conditions hadn’t been made public. It’s possible that they didn’t even exist.
Perhaps the real reason that there are no success criteria for modern wars is because, for some parties, the war is the “success”. The US “wins” by being the financier of the war. This is not a new role. It’s the same role the US played for much of WW2 as Britain and France racked up enormous debts that took decades to pay back. Of course, the US had formerly been on the other side of that equation after its war of independence as it owed the French large sums of money.
Back in the really old days, a king would often go to war on little more than the promise to his soldiers that they could loot and pillage if they won. That’s how a war was “paid for”. But just as the meaning of the word “afford” has become abstracted from its old meaning that related to tangible things in the real world, so has the meaning of war changed. Nowadays, you don’t loot and pillage directly. You do it through financial instruments i.e. debt. It’s a game that’s been played for a few centuries now. The US is simply the latest dominant player.
As Julian Assange once aptly noted, the point of these wars is not to win. They are as much exercises in financial warfare as military. That’s the basis of the military industrial complex. So, the real question is not whether the US can afford these wars, but whether it can afford not to have them. Politically speaking, the US cannot afford not to have wars because the people who hold power in the US profit from them. Whether the US as a nation profits from them is increasingly doubtful since wars funded from deficits have a nasty habit of causing inflation and the corona lockdowns already baked the equivalent of a war’s worth of inflation into the cake.
In many ways, the older meaning of the word “afford” was far more accurate. Can you afford something = can you accomplish something. It requires no accomplishment to “afford” something with money. Any fool with enough dollars in the bank can “afford” something. In the old meaning, you had to have real wealth in the form of raw materials and knowledge.
The braggart states “I can afford to drive my car into a brick wall” meaning “I can afford to replace it”. But it’s self-evident that, even if you have the money to afford it, driving your call into a brick wall is not a good idea. Anybody can see that.
And yet the debates that seem to comprise our entire public discourse these days are exactly of this form. A reporter asks some apparatchik “can we afford to drive our car into a brick wall?” and the apparatchik chirpily replies “of course we can. The economy is in great shape.”
If we translate the same question using the old meaning of the word “afford”, it would come out as “can we accomplish the task of driving our car into a brick wall?” And even the village idiot could see the problem with that question.
Still, that’s the world we live in. We are governed by greedy psychopaths who make money from damaged cars and their useful idiots who get to pontificate on the 6 o’clock news about how we can definitely afford it.