Note to the reader:
For some, the issue of nuclear weapons is of a purely strategic nature; for others it is a matter of morality; yet others consider it a problem of religion. It is natural to assume that a student of economics will take the objective course: analyze the available data, assemble a model, predict future outcomes, revise the model (with a few ceteris paribus thrown in for good measure). But, as surprising as this fact may be to some, economists are people too. No matter how hard we try to be scientifically rigorous in our approach to all things, it is impossible to disentangle opinion from fact. The heart of the economist will forever be an omitted variable in his models and figures. This article will embrace, rather than shake its fist at that fact.
It is difficult for Westerners today, looking at the present state of the Japanese economy, to equate that nation with the battle-scorched archipelago that emerged from the Second World War. The Japanese miracle has been a blessing bestowed upon the world, but it has made it too easy to forget that, only seven decades ago, the Land of the Rising Sun was limping out of years of bloody conflict.
Today, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bustling metropolises; seventy years ago, much of their infrastructure, services, and citizens lay in ashes after the United States dropped the first (and only) atomic bombs to be used in wartime on them. According to Japanese reports, 69% of all buildings in the former city were destroyed. At least 225000 people were killed at both sites.
Japan immediately after its surrender to the United States resembled very little Japan of the early 20th century or Japan of today. 40% of its industrial capacity and infrastructure had been obliterated. However, the Japanese economy rebounded quickly. By the 1960s, it was steaming full force into a new period of expansion and plenty.
That was two bombs. Today, the world possesses over 10,000. ***
The Manhattan Project (the codename for the operation that developed the world’s first atomic devices) cost the United States 27 billion U.S. dollars (adjusted for inflation to 2016 equivalence). In the following years, as the Japanese economy plowed into the future, the United States and the Soviet Union were plowing into years of fear, anxiety, tension, and, of course, ever-expanding nuclear capacity. Counting from 1940 onward, the entire cost of the nuclear arms race for the former country has been estimated at around 8.65 trillion 2017 U.S. dollars. For comparison, the current national debt of the United States is over 19 trillion dollars.
It is all too easy to normalize the above numbers. It is just as easy to make foolish generalizations about nuclear weapons because the sample size we have to work with is so small.
Let’s imagine a scenario–a ridiculously optimistic scenario, but an easy one to work with–in which the U.S. and Russia exchange a short volley of ICBM’s. Ten is a lovely number, so we will say each side launches only five. The U.S.’s missiles hit Russia’s five largest cities, Russia’s hit the U.S.’s five largest. Now let’s examine the effects of just one of these events–New York City.
The New York metropolitan area’s gross economic output in 2016 was estimated at 1.664 trillion dollars, accounting for almost 9% of the U.S.’s GDP that year. Its population in 2010 (at the time of the last census) was just over 23 million, meaning that about 7.5% of the U.S. population lives in the city and its suburbs. A bomb dropped over lower Manhattan would destroy the New York Stock Exchange, the United Nations, City Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the new World Trade Center, the Empire State Building–not to mention untold numbers of businesses, shops, apartments, and parks. It would cripple not only the city, not only the Northeastern United States, not only the entire country–it would cripple the world, financially and morally.
We could use, as a minimum point of departure, the financial collapse which immediately followed 9/11. The NYSE (which, mind you, was still standing after those attacks) remained closed until September 17th; that day, the market plunged 684 points. This 7.1% decline represented the largest single-day loss in the history of the exchange. By the end of the week, the DJIA was down by 14%. If the loss from a nuclear attack on New York City were not total, it would be, at the very least, catastrophic. And, as we have been painfully reminded over the past decade, financial losses don’t just hurt investors and brokers; they hurt working men and women everywhere.
And that is just one city. I have not even touched the other nine, nor shall I, because I believe my point has been made. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were great cities, and they were rebuilt into great cities. But they were two cities in a very large country, which were destroyed at the end of a great war, not the beginning of one. As important as they may have been to the economy of Japan, it is difficult to compare their global influence in 1945 to that of the city of New York today.
I would also like to point out that the scope of the above scenario is incredibly unrealistic. From a purely game theoretical perspective, once even one nuclear weapon has been launched, the cost of hitting the button again drops to essentially zero–and it may be true that the benefit rises immensely. The cost to construct the weapons has been sunk. Each side has no reason to believe that the other will not retaliate with full force, which would mean complete destruction of military capacity. If all of those bombs would be turned to ash anyway, why not use them? The study of nuclear war as a strategic game is fascinating and important, though not very complex. It essentially boils down to a prisoner’s dilemma type problem–each side could do better if they both agreed to launch no weapons (or at least a limited number), but there is no real way to bind each party to such a treaty, especially since the benefit from reneging on such a deal is enormous.
And we find ourselves returned to the human element of nuclear war. Global atomic conflict boils down to one simple fact: there is a single man, maybe two, who gets to decide whether or not to pull the plug on the human race, or at least a substantial portion of it. You can give him all the complex policy analyses,
all the tools, all the books you want, but his decision, when the nuclear football is in front of him, will likely be a decision of the amygdala. No man, not even the wisest, is immune to the most primal of human instincts–fear.
We have now journeyed into both the past and the future; let us return to the present.
I can say with a great degree of confidence that I have never feared more for man than I do right now. To be sure, the nuclear threat is a only a part of that anxiety–but its relative significance has been increasing quite steadily. The deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia, as well as increasing North Korean–Western tensions, are mostly responsible for that fact.
But it is with great disappointment that I must say those are not the only reasons. As alluded to earlier, it is a general principle of man that the bliss of forgetting is easier than the pain of remembering. We are set on our feet facing forward, and to look back requires activity rather than passivity.
Modern man is bombarded with information at every second of the day. We are constantly receiving news alerts of environmental disasters, police shootings, terrorist attacks, election results, and, yes, financial crises. We do not receive daily news alerts about atomic bombings. We hear about nuclear weapons in very vague terms: Iran’s uranium centrifuges, or a failed missile launch in North Korea, for example. Prior to several months ago, it seemed to me that the whole world had become desensitized to the nuclear issue; it appeared that people, for the sake of excusing past actions of their nations or any number of other reasons, could not remember that several nations possess weapons which, in toto, have the power to snuff out all life on this planet.
People are only now looking backwards. And it may be too late. That is what scares me most of all.
“And let us protect our affluence from those who, in the name of defending it, would leave the planet only with its ashes.”–John Kenneth Galbraith
U.S. Department of Commerce
U.S. Census Bureau
The New York Times
The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum (https://www.trumanlibrary.org)
UCLA: Children of the Atomic Bomb (http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/cab/200706100001.html)