Columnist on “Keynesian Coin Toss” • Greg Morin
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” http://goo.gl/OshZS) 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, http://goo.gl/mgYuc) 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.
Greg Morin is a member of the Libertarian party and CEO of Seachem Laboratories located in Madison. Constructive comments are welcomed to this paper or at gregmorin.com
Printed in the November 8, 2012 edition