The only good thing about a storm that killed at least 39 people, disrupted millions of lives and caused around $20 billion of damage is the chance to talk about Frederic Bastiat’s lesson in his seminal essay "That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen". And the only reason we have that chance is because there are so many alleged economists out there—the same trolls who emerge after every disaster—who leap into print to insist the destruction will actually be “good for the economy.”
Alleged economist and professor at Smith School of Business Peter Morici, for example, who took immediately to the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere to argue:
in an economy with high unemployment and underused construction resources, Sandy will probably unleash $15 billion to $20 billion in private spending directly related to reconstruction.
That figure could grow as many rebuild larger and better than before. Consider a struggling restaurant, for example, whose owner invests his insurance settlement in a new and more attractive business. In areas like the Jersey Shore, older, smaller homes on large plots may be replaced by bigger dwellings that can accommodate more families during the tourist season. The Outer Banks of North Carolina saw such gains several decades ago after rebuilding from a storm of similar scale.
Equally moronic is Panos Mourdoukoutas at Forbes.com, Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, Moody’s Analytics Ryan Sweet writing in the Wall Street Journal, Chris Isidore at CNN Money, and AP “economic writers” Christopher S. Rugaber & Martin Crutsinger writing everywhere ---all of them saying, as summarised by the idiotic Bo Peng writing in The Street,
In an economy not constrained by resources, such as that of the U.S., limited crisis means only two things at the statistical level: stimulus to individual and government spending; and stimulus to jobs.
That’s a whole asylum full of morons, to which only a moment’s Googling would be needed to add dozens more. And Paul Krugman hasn’t even had the chance to post yet. Or Bernard Hickey.
Blogging at the Acton Institute, Joe Carter asks
Frederic Bastiat provided the ultimate rebuttal to this spurious thinking 162 years ago in his essay ‘That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.’ So why do we people make the same claim that destruction is economically beneficial? Could it be that people are simply unaware of Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window?
No wonder the sane, dry and sober Don Boudreaux “is far less worried about the actual consequences of Sandy than about the additional battering that Sandy's winds, rains, and flood waters will prompt economically uninformed reporters and pundits to inflict upon the body politic.”
Fortunately, sane and serious commentators are educating bodies both public and politic.
Writing at Bloomberg, Caroline Baum has
a standard response to such nonsense: If wealth destruction is such a good thing, why wait for natural disasters to occur when we could nuke and rebuild our cities on a regular basis?
Yes, housing starts will increase, but the stock of homes won't be any larger. Businesses will replace the lost capital stock, but drawing on scarce resources to rebuild isn't an efficient use of them.
Our old friend Frederic Bastiat explained it best -- the parable of the broken window -- in his 1850 essay, "That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen." He tells the story of a shopkeeper whose son breaks a window in his store. The shopkeeper has to pay the glazier six francs (no euros back then) to repair it. The glazier then has money in his pocket to spend. This is "that which is seen," or the Keynesian multiplier decades before John Maynard Keynes was even born.
What if the shopkeeper didn't have to spend six francs to repair the broken window, Bastiat asks? He could have bought a pair of shoes, or spent it on something else. "Neither industry in general, nor the sum total of national labor, is affected, whether windows are broken or not," Bastiat writes. "Or, more briefly, 'destruction is not profit.' "
Even a Ph.D. economist should be able to grasp that principle.
Boudreaux himself describes Morici’s flawed reasoning as Vulgar Keynesianism at Full Gallop:
There’s nothing surprising in Prof. Morici’s argument that the spending necessary to repair damaged buildings and other assets can help the economy. Predictions of economy-wide wealth springing from devastation are issued after every natural disaster. These predictions are examples of what the English jurist A.V. Dicey called “the idle contentions of paradox-mongers”* – predictions that are just clever enough to strike economically uninformed people as being profoundly insightful.
But what appears to many to be profoundly insightful is, in fact, fallacious.
If Prof. Morici is correct, then surely he also applauds, say, the economic consequences of drunk driving. As with hurricanes and earthquakes, he can bemoan the loss of life caused by drunk driving and then get on with explaining how, paradoxically, the economy benefits from drunk driving. After all, drunk driving creates unnecessarily large numbers of destroyed automobiles to replace, damaged automobiles to repair, dead victims to bury, and injured victims to be cared for by first-responders, doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and hospital administrators and clerks.
If you sense – as you should – that the economy in fact does not benefit from drunk driving, then you should reject Prof. Morici’s argument that the economy benefits from natural disasters.
At National Review, Veronique de Rugy wonders aloud at those who argue
Being forced to spend money that people had planned to spend on something else or to save to prepare for harder days ahead in order to give an artificial boost to GDP in the construction business has benefits? No, it doesn’t other than superficially. That’s what French economist Frederic Bastiat called the broken window fallacy. Bastiat rightly noted that a country doesn’t benefit or get richer because of the destruction imposed by disasters (whether natural or man-made ones, such as wars). Destruction of wealth, buildings, streets, subway systems, houses, electric grids, bridges, and more doesn’t make a country richer even if it temporarily creates jobs in the construction business. All destruction does is destroy and divert to the reconstruction effort scare resources that could have been allocated to other things (things people actually really wanted).
She attacks the standard Keynesian response to the broken-window fallacy argument:
Keynesians argue that the broken window fallacy applies if and only if the resources needed to fix the window were already fully employed before they had to be diverted. However, today’s economic conditions are such that there are plenty of idle resources lying around that can now be put to productive use. But … why are there so many idle resources lying around? (Especially after years of policies meant to put them to good use.) [On that, Robert Murphy has several good points in response to the Keynesian argument.]
On that note I would add that what we have found out during the last episode of stimulus spending is that unemployment rates among specialists, such as those with the skills to build roads, bridges or schools, (basically the people who will be used during the reconstruction effort in the next few months) are often relatively low. Moreover, it is unlikely that an employee who specializes in residential-area construction can easily update his or her skills to include rebuilding bridges or electric grids and subway systems. As a result, firms receiving stimulus money tend to hire their workers away from other construction sites where they were employed rather than from the unemployment lines. This is what economists call “crowding out.” Except that in this case, labor, not capital, is being crowded out. In fact, the original work of GMU’s economist Garett Jones and AEI’s Dan Rothschild confirms that a plurality of workers hired with ARRA money were poached from other organizations rather than from the unemployment lines. The same will likely be true today with Sandy and the reconstruction effort that will follow its devastation.
Writing at Forbes, Tim W0rstall reminds us the ignorant are only able to make their argument these days because of their GDP fetish allowing them to confuse our stock of capital with the flows that emanate from them.
[Here] is half the problem with the way we calculate GDP: government spending counts at what it costs, not what value it produces.
The other half of the problem is that we are measuring the current activity, not the capital value. This is a common complaint when we talk about pollution. Cleaning up an oil spill counts as an increase in GDP. Which it is of course: we think that cleaning up an oil spill adds value so cleaning up an oil spill does add value. That’s why we clean it up and also why we count it in GDP: our measure of value being added.
The problem is that we don’t count the loss in capital value of the original spill itself: nor of any other pollution. GDP measures the flows in the economy, not the stock…
Imagine that the total wealth of the US is $100 trillion. All the buildings, the factories, the financial assets, the human capital, the natural resources, all add up to $100 trillion. The GDP of the country is around $15 trillion. That second is the flow that we get from the stock of the first.
Now imagine that Hurricane Sandy does $20 billion of damage to that wealth [which is what disaster analysts Eqecat suggest]. The US is now worth $99.980 Trillion. GDP might rise to $15.01 trillion as we repair that damage. But we’re not in fact any richer at all: despite the fact that GDP has gone up. What has actually happened is that some of our stock of wealth has been destroyed and we’re having to do more work in order to rebuild it. This is exactly the same as our pollution example. We’re measuring what we produce but not the capital stock of what we have (or had).
Yes, the rebound from Sandy may well provide a boost to the economy. But that’s a function of the way that we measure that economy, not a real boost in our general wealth.
It would be nice if some folk remembered that. Or learned it.
It is the difference in essence, as David Ricardo once pointed out, between Value and Riches.
To help them, let me conclude by quoting extensively from the great Frederic Bastiat himself—whose insights still cast an enormous shadow. Here below is the relevant excerpt from his seminal 1850 essay, around which the great Henry Hazlitt developed his “one lesson” of economics: “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”
…Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James B., when his careless son happened to break a square of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact, that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation - "It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?"
Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.
Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier's trade - that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs - I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.
But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, "Stop there! your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen."
It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.
Let us take a view of industry in general, as affected by this circumstance. The window being broken, the glazier's trade is encouraged to the amount of six francs; this is that which is seen. If the window had not been broken, the shoemaker's trade (or some other) would have been encouraged to the amount of six francs; this is that which is not seen.
And if that which is not seen is taken into consideration, because it is a negative fact, as well as that which is seen, because it is a positive fact, it will be understood that neither industry in general, nor the sum total of national labour, is affected, whether windows are broken or not.
Now let us consider James B. himself. In the former supposition, that of the window being broken, he spends six francs, and has neither more nor less than he had before, the enjoyment of a window.
In the second, where we suppose the window not to have been broken, he would have spent six francs on shoes, and would have had at the same time the enjoyment of a pair of shoes and of a window.
Now, as James B. forms a part of society, we must come to the conclusion, that, taking it altogether, and making an estimate of its enjoyments and its labours, it has lost the value of the broken window.
When we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: "Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed;" and we must assent to a maxim which will make the hair of protectionists stand on end - To break, to spoil, to waste, is not to encourage national labour; or, more briefly, "destruction is not profit."
What will you say, Monsieur Industriel -- what will you say, disciples of good M. F. Chamans, who has calculated with so much precision how much trade would gain by the burning of Paris, from the number of houses it would be necessary to rebuild?
I am sorry to disturb these ingenious calculations, as far as their spirit has been introduced into our legislation; but I beg him to begin them again, by taking into the account that which is not seen, and placing it alongside of that which is seen. The reader must take care to remember that there are not two persons only, but three concerned in the little scene which I have submitted to his attention. One of them, James B., represents the consumer, reduced, by an act of destruction, to one enjoyment instead of two. Another under the title of the glazier, shows us the producer, whose trade is encouraged by the accident. The third is the shoemaker (or some other tradesman), whose labour suffers proportionably by the same cause. It is this third person who is always kept in the shade, and who, personating that which is not seen, is a necessary element of the problem. It is he who shows us how absurd it is to think we see a profit in an act of destruction. It is he who will soon teach us that it is not less absurd to see a profit in a restriction, which is, after all, nothing else than a partial destruction. Therefore, if you will only go to the root of all the arguments which are adduced in its favour, all you will find will be the paraphrase of this vulgar saying - What would become of the glaziers, if nobody ever broke windows?
It is the same with a people as it is with a man …