Economic illiteracy is just rampant this day after Thanksgiving. The latest example is found at convicted stock promoter Henry Blodget’s “Business Insider” whose editors foresee a huge “Keynesian” boost to the economy because of the damage wrecked by Hurricane Sandy.
Cataneo’s experience shows how the storm is giving the U.S. Northeast — and the rest of the country — an economic boost that may eventually surpass the loss of business it caused. Reconstruction and related purchases and hiring may range from $140 billion to $240 billion and increase U.S. economic growth by 0.5 percentage point next year, assuming $50 billion in losses, according to Economic Outlook Group LLC, a Princeton, New Jersey-based forecasting firm.
Do hurricanes, earthquakes (and even alien invasions, called for by Noble Prize winner and former Enron advisor Paul Krugman) really grow the economy? Should we raze Hollywood? Fire bomb Washington D.C.? Tempting as that seems the answer, alas, for those who believe in magic beans, is no. This is merely a repetition of what has been known since 1850 as Bastiat’s Fable, or “the Broken Window Fallacy”. The argument in a nutshell: forcing an individual to spend money to replace what already exists diverts capital from new investments and business opportunities and creates a net loss, not a gain. The money and labor spent installing post-Sandy plywood window coverings is economic activity not spent somewhere else.
Here’s a portion of Bastiat’s original argument which, as noted, has been available to economic pundits for the past 162 years – too bad he didn’t publish it with cartoons:
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 thatwhich 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 labor, is affected, whether windows are broken or not.