Economic Conversion

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Lloyd Dumas
University of Texas at Dallas

Approaching two decades after the disappearance of our only superpower rival, America’s military budget is almost as large as all other countries military budgets combined. We continue to spend at Cold War levels despite the fact that, as we are slowly learning, none of the most pressing 21st century threats to security — terrorism, proliferation, climate change — are effectively addressed by military force. Why? In part because the livelihoods of millions of people in politically powerful military-dependent institutions and communities are tied to the flow of military dollars.


This troubled world is very different today than even a few decades ago. We have more to fear from handfuls of determined terrorists and blowback from the environmental damage we have done than from attack by standing armies. Changing times call for changing strategies, yet people with vested economic interests in the status quo always feel threatened by change. Those convinced that our continued wellbeing depends on redirecting national priorities will find it easier to bring about change if they can reassure people tied into the current system that their economic wellbeing is not at risk.


Economic conversion is the process of efficiently transferring people and facilities from military-oriented to civilian-oriented activity. Changing the consequences of substantial military spending cuts from massive job loss to a change in what people produce on the job removes the politically powerful “jobs” argument. By forcing military programs to be judged on their real contribution to security, conversion is important to more intelligent decision making on national priorities.

Huge military budgets are ineffective in facing down 21st century threats to security. Obviously, military spending offers no advantage in confronting the threat of increasingly severe weather events (hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods) that, with other environmental disasters, appear directly linked to global warming. Less obviously but equally true, military force is of little use in confronting terrorist threats. The world’s most powerful military did nothing to prevent or stop the 9-11 attacks. Virtually every terrorist caught, every terrorist plot foiled has been the result of first-rate intelligence and police work, not the threat or use of military force. Military force has also been useless in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Not only is high military spending ineffective in addressing the most pressing security threats, it is also a serious drain on economic strength, one of the most important sources of national wellbeing and international influence. This idea is hardly new in economics, going back to Adam Smith, the 18th century founder of capitalism. Smith argued that military spending was economically unproductive. Decades ago, economists commonly used “military burden” almost synonymously with “military budget.”

Today, the problem is the same, but some mechanisms are different. Large numbers of highly skilled engineers and scientists are needed to develop modern technologically sophisticated military weapons and related systems. But engineers and scientists are also critical to modern civilian industry. They develop new technologies that improve products and processes, driving the growth of productivity, which allows producers to pay higher wages and still keep prices low. Rising wages and low prices are the recipe for increasing economic prosperity. Quality products at low prices are also key to keeping industries competitive with rivals abroad, and therefore to keeping unemployment low and profits strong.

By directing the nation’s technological talent away from developing the technologies civilian-oriented producers need, huge military budgets drain a nation’s economic vitality. This is one reason for both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the de-industrialization of the United States. Thus, there are compelling economic and security arguments for re-orienting national priorities. Economic conversion facilitates this process.

When World War II ended, the U.S. transferred 30 percent of its economic output from military-oriented to civilian-oriented activity in one year (1945-46) without unemployment rising above 3 percent. That remarkable feat, which depended on advanced planning by the private sector and government, successfully “reconverted” an economy that had moved into military production during the war back to producing the civilian products it made before the war. Though the scale is smaller today, the problem is more complicated. Unlike the 1940s reconversion, most of those working today in what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” have never done anything but military-oriented work. And the difference between military and civilian-oriented activity has become much greater. The process is no longer one of going back to what is familiar; it is now a move to new work in a very different environment.

For example, military sector engineers today are under enormous pressure to squeeze every ounce of performance out of products they design. With enormous military budgets, cost is not nearly as important an issue. Civilian sector products must perform well, but keeping cost low is absolutely critical. Engineering for maximum performance with little attention to cost is very different from engineering for low cost with reasonable performance. To successfully transfer from military to civilian work, engineers must be retrained (given some different skills) and re-oriented (taught to look at engineering from a different perspective). In general, more specialized and skilled people require more retraining and re-orientation.

Converting facilities and equipment requires assessing their character and condition to find the best match to productive civilian use. From 1961-1981, more than 90 U.S. military bases were closed and converted to industrial parks, research centers, college campuses, and airports --- with a net 20 percent increase in employment. In the 1990s, Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas was converted to a booming civilian airport. In October 2005, the nuclear weapons complex at Rocky Flats, Colorado was closed, and the land on which it stood is being turned into a National Wildlife Refuge.

The conversion movement in the U.S. began in the 1970s and grew through the early 1990s. In 1977, bi-partisan sponsors introduced the National Economic Conversion Act in the Senate, and soon after in the House of Representatives. Repeatedly reintroduced through the years, it never became law. If it had, the decentralized nationwide private and public sector process of conversion planning and support it would have set up would have prevented the economic shockwave that military dependent workers and communities felt in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and made it politically much easier to forestall the subsequent return to Cold War military spending levels.

Given the urgent need to redirect the nation’s attention and resources to address the economic and security realities of the 21st century, economic conversion has never been more important. Through letters, town hall meetings and personal visits, our representatives in the Congress must learn that reducing the military drain on our economy is critical to rebuilding the American middle class, repairing our decaying national infrastructure, and addressing the real problems of homeland security. Working with existing citizen’s organizations, conversion can help build alliances among the growing number of businesspeople who oppose the unilateralist militarism that has poisoned the nation’s image abroad, workers who see themselves going backwards, and environmentalists who want the nation to free the resources necessary to stop the slow motion disaster of global warming.


Conversion defines economic alternatives for those tied into institutions of militarism and war anywhere, helping build support for redirecting national priorities toward more effective, nonmilitary solutions to real national security needs. It is also critical to removing the economic burden of high military budgets, and thus reinvigorating national economies.

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