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How The American Economy Was Centrally Planned During World War II.
And how we could use central planning to ensure efficient distribution in 2023.
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The greatest fallacy plaguing American politics is the notion that the U.S. government is Bad At Doing Things. After a half-century of both political parties espousing privatization and enacting policies that reduce the state’s role in public life, the median American has come to accept the gospel of Neoliberalism, preferring market-based economic solutions over collective action. There are some inconsistencies to this belief, as illustrated by Social Security's favorability (currently at 89% favorable) being far above the pro-government responses to questions like “Should the government be more involved in the economy?” (≈40% “YES” and 60% “NO”).
But despite the overwhelmingly positive view of Social Security and other basic welfare systems, the fact remains that most Americans hold little faith in the capacity of their government to Do Good Things. This is understandable, as contemporary politics are plagued by sabotage (see the current debt limit fight), inefficiencies (building subways cost 65% more in the US than other nations), and flat-out fuck ups (the crash of Healthcare.gov on its launch day). Failures abound, it’s easy for Capitalists, their political allies, and any common person to highlight these systemic failings as reasons “the government doesn’t work.”
But by looking at the previous actions of the American state, we can see that the defects in its capacity to provide public goods and services are a modern invention. Historically, when push comes to shove, the U.S. government has succeeded where the private sector has failed — putting astronauts on the moon, saving the auto industry, and, most importantly, winning World War II.
During the war, the majority of the government’s focus was on battlefield strategy, weapons production, and navigating the motley crew that composed the Allied Forces. But it also needed to wage a war on the homefront. This was not a fight against armed adversaries but against the enemies of excessive consumption and inefficient production. To win this battle, and eventually the War, the U.S. government instilled an economic system it would soon claim to despise.
That system was central planning.
WWII Central Planning
Originally established under the Office for Emergency Management just a few months prior to Pearl Harbor, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) became its own independent agency in early 1942. At the time, the U.S. was transforming into a wartime society, and it was becoming increasingly clear that drastic alterations to our economy would be needed to avoid wasteful consumption and streamline production.
The OPA was the vanguard of this reorganization, charged with changing a laissez-faire, for-profit economy into one that distributed goods exactly as needed, with each American getting nothing less and nothing more. In addition to having the power to institute price controls on coveted items such as rent, automobiles, paper, gas, meats, cheese, coffee, rubber, and more, the OPA instituted a strict rationing program on American consumers. With the help of volunteers, the OPA distributed ration books to every American, children and babies included. In these books were point-based “tickets” that shoppers would have to tear out and give to the shopkeeper whenever they wanted to purchase a rationed item, which was pretty much anything worth buying. If you wanted to go out and get a ham for Sunday dinner, you would have to have enough ration points. Otherwise, you’d be forced to settle for one of the many meatless dinners that were becoming increasingly popular throughout the home front.
Some items were so important to the war effort that they were taken off the shelves entirely. With car manufacturers dedicated solely to producing tanks, jeeps, and airplanes for the war, tires and personal automobiles became exclusive commodities. Rather than buying cars with tickets, Americans would have to apply to purchase one at the local Rationing Board, where they would be approved or rejected based on need. And with the East Indies now under hostile Japanese occupation, rubber became nearly unobtainable. For most of the war, Americans couldn’t even purchase a new tire and instead had to resort to re-patching leaks and punctures.
As the war wound down, the OPA gradually removed items from the ration list, with sugar being the final item to become de-rationed in 1947. Its job complete, the OPA soon folded.
Despite the gargantuan task of changing the entire American economy from one of consume-at-will to one of allotment by need almost overnight, the Office of Price Administration was a historic success. As evident by you reading these words in neither German nor Japanese, American central planning worked and was invaluable in saving the world from Fascist conquest.
What Central Planning Success Means Today
At a time when so many Americans are frustrated by free market profiteers but also hold a distrust in the government’s capacity to provide for their basic needs, it is important to recall the great achievements the United States has brought through state action, the prioritization of human needs, and the implementation of democratic central planning. Fortunately, in 2023 America does not need to ration the purchase of tires or new shoes. In fact, there are few goods we would need to limit. But with 57% of American adults unable to cover an emergency medical expense, 25% of us experiencing food insecurity, and an estimated .18% of us without a place to live, it is time to call out the system-wide failings of market-based Capitalism and start testing how the government’s proven track record of central planning could once again provide for Americans based on need. Just as the Office of Price Administration did during World War II, the government could use central planning to ensure efficient distribution, so that all Americans can access necessary food, shelter, and healthcare.
If you’d like to learn the nitty-gritty details about how the U.S. government could provide for Americans through democratic planning and other Socialist policies, subscribe to JoeWrote so future explainers are delivered straight to your inbox. And if you know someone who would benefit from this article, please send it to them. Or, share it on social media to help JoeWrote grow and let your followers know you’re an interesting person who reads cool things.
What do you think the historic success of American central planning means for the economy of today? Do you think we should begin distributing food, healthcare, and necessities based on need, as we did during WWII? Share your thoughts in the comments.