Hurricane Sandy wrought not only terrible destruction this past week, it likewise whipped a few economic fallacies to the surface. Chief among these was the unwarranted attacks on the “price gougers” and the stunning ignorance of those pontificating on the “prosperity through destruction” meme. I shall defer my defense of the gougers and turn my attention toward the “destructionists”. What pray tell might be the upside to destruction? Jobs. The same old hackneyed drivel that was laid to rest 160 years ago by Frédéric Bastiat (see “the fallacy of the broken window”) and yet it keeps popping up with every natural disaster like the game of Whack-A-Mole. Even Ph.D. economists (Duncan Black, USA Today) who should know better continue to espouse such drivel. His recent article is illustrative toward this way of thinking insofar as he seems to be suggesting that a storm is primarily beneficial not because of the illusory short term economic benefit, but rather because it is a useful tool to teach the unwashed masses how non-voluntary spending can spur economic expansion and job creation. Such an example can then be used to justify to those obstructionist dimwits in Congress that we need much larger and grander government sponsored non-voluntary (stimulus) spending. The core premise of this argument is akin to a eulogy in which the grieving are instructed to take solace in the fact that the undertaker will benefit financially from the death of their loved one.
To be sure, there will be a localized economic uptick following any rebuilding. That is the “seen” benefit. But as Bastiat taught, one must also consider the “unseen” losses. That is, all the things that could have been done but were not. This is called “opportunity” cost. We experience this every time we buy something insofar as we could have bought something else. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when our will, our desires, are overridden by an outside force that corrals us into choosing something we would not, absent such coercion, freely choose. When that force is Mother Nature we don’t like it, but we accept it and move on. The Keynesian understands that if they can convince us that Mother Nature’s destruction might be positive then we will be that much more willing to accept it when Man (through his proxy the State) imposes his diversionary will upon us. In other words, if I can convince you that getting hit in the face isn’t all that bad, you’ll be much more willing to put up with having your foot stomped on.
The Keynesian tries to rationalize their position by suggesting that funds “tied up” by insurance companies or unpatriotic savers are simply “idle.” * Well, parked cars are “idle” too. Should we melt them down and make a bunch of toasters? That would certainly benefit the toaster makers and their employees, but somehow I don’t think the car owners would appreciate this. This is how the Keynesian’s sell their ideas, by dishonestly pointing at only what we can see and mumbling zombie-like “jobs” while conveniently ignoring those that provided the resources. Money is never idle. If it’s not being spent then it is being saved or invested. Saved money is lent out and spent. Invested money supports new and existing businesses and jobs. Consider what would happen if all of the “idle” stock of a company were converted to cash by a company and paid to shareholders. That company would cease to exist insofar as every asset would have been sold. I’ll say it again: money is never idle. Repairing destroyed property involves removing active resources from the economy. In order for insurance companies to pay claims they need cash, which they either (a) withdraw from a bank, thereby decreasing lendable funds or (b) they sell assets, thereby decreasing the ability of those that buy the assets to further spend. Each dollar devoted to repairs in one area of the economy represents another dollar removed elsewhere. In other words, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Natural disasters and government stimulus are two sides of the same will-manipulating coin – wealth destruction on one side and wealth diversion on the other.
* Because these articles are published in newspapers where I am under a word count constraint sometimes I must leave out some discussions that are entirely germane but simply will not fit. But as this is the online mirror of the article I will include a bit more of the economics discussion here. There is in fact a legitimate route by which disasters and destructions can and do result in increased productive output. I’m not suggesting this is a good thing, but I would be remiss if I did not bring up this point and clarify that however true it can sometimes be there is a cost involved that is always overlooked when brought in the mainstream press.
Natural disasters can in theory produce enhanced productive output, however whether you view this as good or bad depends on whether you view working 12 hours a day preferable to working 8 hours a day. The basic premise is this: if your house burns down and you have to rebuild it yourself while still carrying on all the other duties you previously had you will indeed be more productive. Not only are you building a house you are still producing enough to continue feeding and sheltering yourself as much as you were before. The obvious tradeoff here is leisure time. Formerly you could work 8 hours a day but now you must work 12 or 14, the excess time being devoted to recreating that which was destroyed. If this is indeed beneficial then perhaps the government should mandate everyone work 12 hours a day and we could grow GDP in this country by 50% in one year!
Leisure time also has value but this value, being subjective, is non-monetary. It is impossible for the state economists to account for the loss of this value when factoring in the apparent expanded productivity following a disaster. Obviously people aren’t rebuilding their own homes but the net aggregate effect is the same. If resources in the economy are devoted to (a) normal home building + (b) home reconstruction then those in the construction industry are either working more than they normally would choose to (with concomitant less leisure time) or if they are not working more then one must bid up the price of getting a home built which has the effect of you having to work more in order to afford what you want OR more people are attracted into construction keeping costs down but the loss of those employment resources from other sectors of the economy results in scarcity in those other sectors which drives wages up and hence prices, and thus we all must work more in order to afford what we used to afford in those other sectors: net result, we’re working and producing more but only obtaining the same amount of goods and services we used to get when we worked less prior to the destructive event.
If we do not work more but borrow more then increased demand for borrowed funds will drive up interest rates which will still cost us more in the long term requiring us to work more than we otherwise would have or if money lending demand is met and interest rates stay low that means more people are saving and making do with less which is the functional equivalent of working more for the same. We either choose less leisure time and more work to have 100 units of “stuff” or we choose the same amount of leisure time and accept higher costs and therefore accept we can only now get 80 units of “stuff”. Either way the destructive event is a loss, either to goods or to leisure time.