Hurricane Irene as Economic Stimulus

Oh, dear. Oh, dear. No matter how many times economists debunk the broken window fallacy, not a natural disaster goes by that journalists don’t try to cheer us up by saying “at least it will stimulate economic growth.” This time it’s Josh Boak (no relation!), the economics reporter (!) at Politico, who was “educated at Princeton and Columbia.” And Sunday afternoon he posted this story:

Irene: An economic blow or boost?

The power outages and shuttered airports may stop the engines of commerce for several days, but Hurricane Irene might have provided some short-term economic stimulus as billions of dollars will likely be spent to repair the damage to the East Coast over the weekend.

Cumberland Advisors Chairman David Kotok saw the storm as likely jolting employment in construction, an industry paralyzed by the bursting of the real estate bubble in 2008.

“We are now upping our estimate of fourth-quarter GDP in the U.S. economy,” he said in an email Sunday. “Billions will be spent on rebuilding and recovery. That will put some people back to work, at least temporarily.”

Kotok expects GDP growth — which limped along at less than a percentage point for the first half of the year — to exceed 2 percent in the last three months of the year and potentially reach 3 percent.

Mark Merritt, president of crisis-management consulting firm Witt Associates, said the hurricane should provide a bump in economic activity over the next few months.

“After a disaster, there’s always a definite short-term increase,” Merritt said. “There will be furniture bought, homes repaired, new carpet, new flooring, all the things affected by flooding.”

The story quotes no economist, who might have pointed out that the destruction of homes, businesses, and other property cannot actually be good for the economy. As economist Sandy Ikeda summed it up last year, the argument is that “paying $100 to replace a broken window somehow creates more prosperity than having an intact window and spending that $100 on something else.” He goes on to ask, as many economists have: If destruction is so good for an economy, why wait for a hurricane or a bombing raid? Why not just bomb your own cities?

As Frederic Bastiat explained the “broken window fallacy,” a boy breaks a shop window. Villagers gather around and deplore the boy’s vandalism. But then one of the more sophisticated townspeople, perhaps one who has been to college and read Keynes, says, “Maybe the boy isn’t so destructive after all. Now the shopkeeper will have to buy a new window. The glassmaker will then have money to buy a table. The furniture maker will be able to hire an assistant or buy a new suit. And so on. The boy has actually benefited our town!”

But as Bastiat noted, “Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.” If the shopkeeper has to buy a new window, then he can’t hire a delivery boy or buy a new suit. Money is shuffled around, but it isn’t created. And indeed, wealth has been destroyed. The village now has one less window than it did, and it must spend resources to get back to the position it was in before the window broke. As Bastiat said, “Society loses the value of objects unnecessarily destroyed.”

In the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” the nefarious Rat used the destruction-as-stimulus argument to defend his client’s blowing up downtown:

But that’s a comic strip. Journalists should do better. Please, call one of these economists. They can tell you that destruction is destructive. When property is destroyed, people have less wealth. The money they had been saving for a new business or a new computer or a college education, now they have to spend it on rebuilding what they had. That is not “a bump in economic activity.”