Can we afford that?

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.  

22 thoughts on “Can we afford that?”

  1. Poor Joe Biden. The media was supposed to have forgotten about Ukraine by now. But some pesky journalist (perhaps an unpaid intern) apparently didn’t get the memo. What his answer really means is “I don’t want to talk about Ukraine anymore and don’t ask again!” Teach your interns better! We sure don’t want anyone asking whether the US can afford *three* wars in case Xi et al decide that now would be a tippity-top time for a military excursion to Taiwan. Excellent weather and all that.

  2. Irena – there’s another interesting dual meaning of “afford” here. In the old meaning, “afford a war” meant you could raise an army. Now, “afford a war” means you can fund somebody else’s army. Obviously, the US has been funding various militias for many decades, but I feel like it was kept under wraps for the most part and talked about in vague language like we’re “supporting” so-and-so. Now, we have the president himself openly stating that the US can fund wars, not necessarily fight them. It’s a subtle shift that’s happened slowly over time but an important one.

  3. Hello Simon, Pirates of the Caribbean gave us ” I would like you to consider all possible meaning of as silent as the grave”. Maybe we should consider all the possible meaning of can you afford to pay the price?

  4. Smith – indeed. I just ran “afford” through the Shakespeare word lookup. Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s time the primary meaning was “to offer” or “to provide”. For example:

    “Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford no better term than this — thou art a villain” meaning “Romeo, the hate I bear thee can provide no better term than this…”

    So, can Joe Biden afford (his donors) another war? He sure can.

  5. Hi Simon,

    Yeah, people confuse this difference all the time. Money is very useful, but stuff, abilities and general know-how are wealth. All money can do is put a claim on those. And I agree, there is always the temptation to expand the supply of money so that the people or entity doing so, can get stuff, abilities and general know-how, on the cheap. Debt is a claim on future income. Even the Romans debased their coinage. It’s an old game and what fascinates me is how this is being done right across the west. It’s eerily co-ordinated, although it may just as easily be a common solution, to a common predicament. I can’t really say for sure how it will end up. Candidly, I was shaking my head in dismay back in 1997, when this response seemed to kick off. In 2023, I’m astounded that this particular game has been played so long.

    I tend to agree with the central idea presented in your essay. Can we do this, is a question I’ve been asking myself ever since the Iran proxy war kicked off. We’ll be lucky to avoid action in the South China Sea.

    It is of interest to me that the OPEC oil crisis of the mid 1970’s came after America’s (and Australia’s, although we left earlier when the Whitlam government was elected) loss in Vietnam. I’d been wondering if the loss in Afghanistan would produce a similar result.

    We’re certainly living in interesting times.

    Hey, off topic, as a linguist do you have any ideas as to why English as taught (well to my memory) in High School tends to focus on grammar and spelling, rather than ever touching upon the subjects of writing style and interpretation?



  6. Chris – I think the reason it’s been able to go on this long is because TINA (there is no alternative). I’d say the current system is finished. The only question is whether they can replace it with one of their choosing (based around CBDCs) or not.

    As for the way English is taught, it’s like everything else in high school, they teach only what can be easily formulated into rules and graded on exams and essays. Writing style and interpretation is far too esoteric for that 🙂

  7. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for your thoughts. That makes a lot of sense about the esoteric nature of those two topics. Hadn’t considered the matter from that perspective. Makes you wonder if the fixation on rules and graded exams has altered the culture?

    There’s a good statistical website showing a graph of inflation in Australia between 1960 and today. The last oil crisis during the mid 1970’s is quite instructive as how things rolled during that time. And we had the Bass Strait wells to pump dry too.

    Inflation rates in Australia

    I do wonder about those proposed central currencies and have as yet formed no view on them. Too many dollars can be as much of a problem as too many, and there’s a real recklessness with the money supply which defies my comprehension and that is going on under such folks watch. Dunno.



  8. Chris – the trouble with measuring inflation over time is that they keep modifying the definition so it’s not an apples for apples comparison. Statistics always get “massaged” always in the direction that suits political imperatives. I can’t remember the name of the book, but there was a good book that described the process from a business point of view. If you manage anything by metrics, your subordinates will tweak the metrics in their favour since that is how you are defining their job performance. It doesn’t require any conscious effort, it just happens naturally.

  9. Hi Simon,

    Absolutely, that happens. Give a man a KPI (Key Performance Indicator), and he’ll game it. And one possible implication is that things could in fact be worse than the statistics reveal. I recall the actor Gus Mercurio flogging new homes with land at Mt Evelyn for $39,990. Just sayin…



  10. Chris – hah. Apparently it’s also quite common for footballers to go into real estate after their sports career is over. Rule of life: never buy real estate from a C-grade celebrity.

  11. Do you think this funding of other armies thing is an extension of the esoteric tactics of first the British and then Americans? I suppose you could call it an ‘Atlantic power’ ploy.

    The British in the Napoleonic wars funded the Prussians, the Spanish and a bunch of other irregulars to fight the French, and only intervened with their own army sparingly and once the war was nearing the end committed their full land forces. They of course dominated the waves the entire time.

    World War 2 followed a similar pattern, holding naval supremacy and then only investing land armies when the Russians had all but won the war on the Eastern front. British forces in North Africa had large portions of Commonwealth troops to do the fighting , ditto in Asia.

    It’s only really World war 1 in which the British invested their entire land potential in a continental war in Europe but even then it was the French who suffered the worst losses. It was also probably the only time that the British Empire could afford a huge Navy and Army at the same time.

    The USA has basically used the same strategy, dominating the seas but not committing much on land. In fact in could be argued that their army is pretty suspect and untested against powerful opponents over the course of history, as it was the Navy and Marines who defeated the Japanese and Germany was spent by the time the western front opened up. European militaries always held the USA army in contempt.

    I guess what I’m getting at that holding naval supremacy while funding other countries armies is an Atlantic tactic with a long lineage, with the army of the Anglo empire being often a secondary consideration only used as a last resort or to claim glory in the finale. This is obviously very different to the countries of continental Europe who were far more amy dominated and successful at it.

  12. Skip – wow, I wasn’t aware of that history in relation to the British. In some sense, it’s not a new tactic. In the Arthashastra, the author advises a king to support any country that gets into a war against his main enemy since it’s a relatively cheap way to weaken a rival. So, the idea’s at least a couple of thousand years old.

    I guess what differentiates both Britain and the US is that the size of their economic advantage has allowed them to intervene at little relative cost. It also seems to me that the Germans, Italians and French were tied into the old ideas around gallantry and proving your worth in battle, very reminiscent of Rome. The English were more worried about making money as have been the Americans. Since global trade is conducted over the oceans, this led to the focus on navies over armies.

    I might be drawing a long bow, but in symbolic terms, the British-American strategy reminds me a lot of Lady Macbeth who adopted the “lets you and him fight” strategy to get her husband to take power. Still, I’m biased here as this starts to look like the Devouring Mother all over again 😛

  13. Haha fair enough but I can’t agree with that long bow because they have always been gung ho macho aggressive with taking any potential competitor on in naval battles and going down with the ship if it fails. Funnily enough this is what probably side swiped the Brits because it was their colonial child that eclipsed them at sea from sheer industrial potential rather than a continental military competitor they would have been focused on.

    The USA in its turn went at Japan knowing that it would be a relatively evenly matched naval contest at the beginning. They were really just backing their industry in.

    I suppose then the real red flags for the end of Empire might begin when the USA stops steaming carriers into potential war zones or one is sunk, which is completely in play at present. USS Gerald Ford going down to a missile would certainly signal something momentous.

  14. Another meaning of “afford” is to be able to do something without suffering any grave consequences. For example: “Can the US afford to conduct idiotic foreign policy?” For quite a long time, the answer was “yes.” They did idiotic things, and someone else suffered the consequences. “How much longer can the US afford to conduct idiotic foreign policy?” Now there’s a question for ya! Probably not that much longer.

    Speaking of idiocy, I’ve been somewhat shocked by some of the sheer stupidity coming out of Israel. One small example: some Likud bigshot thought it was a good idea to threaten Russia.

    (For a minute, I wondered if that guy was being paid by Iran or Saudi Arabia or some such to make Israel look unhinged. But then I realized that, no, he’s volunteering his services.)

    Now lemme see. Israel is a small, resource-poor country, surrounded by enemies, and dependent on a distant superpower in decline for its survival. That being the case, you’d think its leadership would be working overtime to forge alliances with the rising superpowers who might just be able to keep the said enemies in check, as the US slowly but surely loses the ability to do so. But no. Which makes me wonder: do they subconsciously feel that their time is up and wish to go with a bang rather than a whimper? Otherwise, it makes no sense at all.

  15. Skip – yeah, I stumbled across an interesting analysis a couple of days ago about the importance of US logistics in the projection of power. They were comparing against the failure of Russian logistics in the early days of the Ukraine war which seems to be a big part of the reason why Russia failed to get Ukraine to collapse. The US projection of power is based on being able to move military equipment anywhere. Since that also matches the US policing the sea lanes, it ties together strategically with economic interests. I’d say that’s a big part of what is behind AUKUS/Taiwan since the US clearly wants to keep the Chinese navy hemmed in.

    Irena – I’d say that meaning of “afford” is also a recent one and follows on from the purely monetary connotation since the price paid for something ignores all other externalities and individuals and companies have a vested interest in trying not to pay for externalities. It’s another problem of measuring everything with metrics.

    In fairness to the US, all humans work on feedback from the environment. When the environment doesn’t punish you for doing something, you assume there is no problem with it. The test for the US will be when some real feedback comes.

    That Likud interview looks like a set up to me. There’s plenty of fringe nutters in the Australian parliament. If you broadcast an interview with them, overseas people would think Australia had gone crazy too 😛

  16. Simon: “There’s plenty of fringe nutters in the Australian parliament. If you broadcast an interview with them, overseas people would think Australia had gone crazy too”

    Well… Given what happened during corona, it’s pretty safe to say that Australia did, in fact, go batshit crazy. 😛 But of course, it wasn’t only Australia. If only it had been! (I’m getting flashbacks of that crazy woman who said you shouldn’t talk to your neighbors because of da virus. Or was she from NZ…?)

    As for the Likud guy: yeah, it did occur to me that they deliberately chose a nutjob for that interview, although (1) he seems to be fairly important, and (2) there’s been a lot of nuttiness coming out of Israel of late (and I don’t just mean in the aftermath of that killing spree two weeks ago).

    And yes, of course, you’re right about the US and feedback from the environment. It’s dangerous to be invulnerable. It makes you stupid, which is becomes very costly once the invulnerability vanishes, as of course it must.

  17. Irena – well, yes, it turns out public health bureaucrats are fringe nutters too. Who knew? (Actually, I suspect most career bureaucrats are half-insane. It comes with the job description.)

    Big = stupid. That seems to be a law of nature. Humans are smart (sometimes) not because we evolved from big animals like dinosaurs but because we evolved from small animals like rats who have to be smart to survive. Which is why the story of David and Goliath is so poignant.

  18. Just as an aside, judging from the reactions of the Yes camp you were spot on with your analysis of the Voice. It wasn’t a simple gesture but a full blown grab for some version of ‘independence’ (from what?) at least according to the Land councils who from my experience working with say they represent aboriginal people but mostly represent their own interests which is bureaucratic continuation and importance.

  19. Skip – it’s pretty scary, isn’t it. Think of some of the awful legislation from the last few years. All of the ridiculous corona measures, most of which seem to have been illegal as evidenced by the fact that government dropped most prosecutions before trial. Victoria’s pandemic draft bill was a joke but would have passed if Somyurek didn’t pull a swifty at the last minute purely out of spite cos he got screwed by his own party. The Misinformation Bill currently up for debate is even worse. WA’s “cultural heritage” law was a farce. Then you’ve got the Voice. The lunatics really are running the asylum.

  20. Yeah interesting times although I took some optimism as it may be that the pendulum is turning. Not much of the propaganda seems to be penetrating, both with the Voice and the current Israel Palestine conflict, certainly not like it did during Corona and then the Russo Ukraine war. The more they try to clamp down on the digital prison the more people will simply leave it, leading to a ratchet process that will come to a farcical end. The media can’t possibly fathom an anti voice but pro Plight of the Palestinians position but speaking to a lot of people this is a pretty common one. Many are also laughing at how dangerous EVs are and really ramping up opposition to the so called renewable roll out.

    The electoral results of the referendum showed in clear detail the massive separation between the great unwashed and the effetes, and the reactions seem to say that it’s only going to get worse because the former actively detests the way things are going and the latter can’t possibly grasp that they may be going the wrong way.

  21. Skip – this is another great example of how the Faustian is the opposite of the Classical. In the late stages of the Classical you had the Caesars trying to hold the whole thing together including by regulating the plebs more and more. In the late Faustian, it’s the elites who are pushing the disintegration of society while the plebs are the ones holding it all together. The internet is a great example. I dunno about you, but almost all the things that I find worthwhile on the internet are generated by individuals or small groups while official mainstream content is laughably bad.

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