Costs of Jingoism

By Sam Uretsky

The term “Jingoism” dates from a Victorian era British music hall song:

We don’t want to have to fight,
but by Jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
we’ve got the money too.

The song dates from 1877 and considering the subsequent military history of the United Kingdom, it seems somewhat over optimistic. Given the subsequent military history of Great Britain, it seems over-confident since the ships were provided on lend lease and the bill wasn’t paid off until 2007. On the other hand, during the Battle of Britain, England stood alone against an incredible war machine, and the men and women did what the ships and money couldn’t. Maybe the British have done well with overconfidence. In a 2006 paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, researchers from Princeton University, discussing the military benefits of overconfidence, reported:

“(i) people are overconfident about their expectations of success; (ii) those who are more overconfident are more likely to attack; (iii) overconfidence and attacks are more pronounced among males than females; and (iv) testosterone is related to expectations of success” More recently, a 2011 paper in the journal Nature concluded: “The fact that overconfident populations are evolutionarily stable in a wide range of environments may help to explain why overconfidence remains prevalent today, even if it contributes to hubris, market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars.” A well known example of over-confidence was from a September 2003 airing of Meet The Press when Vice-President Dick Cheney said “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

Overconfidence has its uses. Writers from the University of Edinburgh (in PLoS One 6/24/11) wrote “Overconfident states win because: (1) they are more likely to accumulate resources from frequent attempts at conquest; (2) they are more likely to gang up on weak states, forcing victims to split their defenses; and (3) when the decision threshold for attacking requires an overwhelming asymmetry of power, unbiased and underconfident states shirk many conflicts they are actually likely to win.” The notion of accumulation of resources may be affecting us now. Overconfidence in our military resources has rested in large part on their size. A year ago, when the Republicans were threatening to shut down the government if there weren’t reductions in the deficit, the two parties reached an agreement that was akin to Mutually Assured Destruction. If a super-committee couldn’t come up with a program of agreeable budget cuts, half from defense, half from social programs, then a series of automatic cuts would take effect, and may require the military to do without $450 billion over the next decade. While there hasn’t been much said about cuts to health, education, drug enforcement, national parks and other agencies and programs ($322 billion), agriculture ($47 billion) or cuts to healthcare providers ($123 billion) Republicans are limited to showing concern that the military budget, which would be brought back to 2007 levels, would be devastating.

Granted some of the most urgent cries are coming from Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and his House colleagues Mick Mulvaney, Joe Wilson and Jeff Duncan. These strong fiscal conservatives have even shown a willingness to discuss closing the deficit through tax increases. On June 21, the National Association of Manufacturers warned that the defense budget cuts would cost “a loss of 1,010,000 private sector jobs, including 130,000 manufacturing jobs, by 2014.” This is almost akin to endorsing a Keynesian solution to the jobs crisis.

It’s hard to separate our military expenditures from the concept of American exceptionalism. Our overconfidence is, after all, based on a well founded confidence, but in Iraq, our nuclear arsenal was no protection against roadside bombs, and our bloated budget hadn’t included funding for body armor for the troops, or better protection for troop transport vehicles.

Jingoism is what led a middle eastern dictator to claim that a war with the vastly more powerful US forces would be “the mother of all battles” but it also leads the US to spend money on weapons systems that we have no expectation of using. Perhaps the economic downturn could be used as a reason to tone down our bellicosity and assume the quiet confidence that comes of being the best and not just the biggest.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012

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