Tag: broken window fallacy

What Sequestration Might Mean for San Diego (and Other Places)

A few days ago, I wrote about the fight looming between taxpayer advocates and defense contractors over whether Congress should scrap the Budget Control Act (BCA) and allow the Pentagon’s budget to grow. The contractors and their allies, led by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), contend that cuts in military spending will have a harmful (some say devastating) impact on the sluggish economy; taxpayers groups point out that the Pentagon’s budget has risen dramatically over the past decade and object to suggestions that we should raise taxes or incur more debt to pay for additional increases.

In my earlier post, I focused on the politics of this fight, here I focus on economics. I’m not convinced—and neither are a number of others—by the AIA’s claims that sequestration will wreck the economy.

For starters, we should keep an eye on the bottom line. If there is no deal to undo the BCA, the Pentagon’s base budget in 2013 will be about the same as in 2007. The budget, in short, is not being gutted, slashed, cut to the bone, etc. (pick your favorite metaphor). In real, inflation-adjusted terms, Pentagon spending will remain near historic highs and well above the spending levels of the 1990s. As for the economic effects of the spending cuts contemplated under sequestration, these are likely to be small because the cuts are tiny relative to the economy as a whole, less than three tenths of 1 percent of GDP per year over the next decade.

Those small cuts are likely, in the big picture, to generate overall benefits. It’s easy to focus exclusively on the companies and individuals hurt by the cuts and forget that the taxed wealth that funded them is being employed elsewhere. Provided that defense-spending cuts allow for lower taxes, people will have more disposable income to spend. If they spend it wisely (and even if they don’t), that will generate new economic activity that will offset the job losses elsewhere.

Of course, regions disproportionately dependent upon military spending are more likely to feel squeezed. Even in these defense-heavy localities, however, the effects of military-spending cuts are likely to be temporary, and the eventual transition of workers out of the defense industry into other fields should have beneficial effects. That goes for areas with sufficient economic activity—especially diversification—to help ease the transition.

That is what we hope will happen. But it is more than just hope; my attitudes toward the economic effects of military spending cuts are also shaped by personal experience, especially a trip that I took to San Diego in the summer of 1997.

I was there to do some research on the missile gap and the presidential election of 1960. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon had both campaigned in Southern California, and both alleged that their opponent’s decisions with respect to military spending would drive thousands of people out of work. I located some interesting information at UC-San Diego and San Diego State. The most memorable moment, however, occurred during a visit to General Dynamics’s Convair facility, not far from the San Diego Airport (aka Lindbergh Field).

Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) had been a major manufacturer of manned aircraft during World War II and then later moved into the design and manufacture of missiles and rockets. Operated as a division of General Dynamics after the two companies merged in 1954, Convair was one of the largest civilian employers in San Diego for several decades. Convair employment in San Diego peaked at more than fifty thousand in 1961, fell to less than six thousand by 1976 and then spiked again in the 1980s to more than twelve thousand employees. But orders for Convair products collapsed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. By June 1995, GD’s Convair Division counted a mere 1,432 workers in its San Diego facility. When I arrived at the Convair plant, two years later, in June 1997, I found a single construction trailer that served as the office for Convair’s final two employees. As I explained in the epilogue to my book, John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, “I witnessed a dying company breathing its last.”

Although it was just one company, one might expect Convair’s demise to have had a devastating ripple effect, given its signal importance to the San Diego economy over the years. It didn’t. Likewise, the other Pentagon cuts of the early 1990s (holding constant for inflation, DoD outlays fell by 29 percent from the peak in 1987 to the trough in 1999) did not do irreparably harm. For example, San Diego’s unemployment rate was the same as the national average in 1996 (5.4 percent), and well below that of the rest of California (7.3 percent) at the time. By 1999, San Diego’s unemployment rate had fallen to just 3.1 percent, more than a full point below the national average (4.2 percent), and more than two points below California state-wide (5.3 percent).

Why did San Diego fare so well? As one study of the region observed in May 2001:

the defense engineers and managers diverted, by the loss of their jobs, into entrepreneurial pursuits … helped the region emerge from the severe economic challenge posed by defense cutbacks at the beginning of the 1990s. Today, San Diego’s economy is growing and contains a more diverse set of industries.

Of course, we will never know if San Diego might have experienced even stronger economic growth in the absence of defense cutbacks in the early 1990s. Nor can we be certain that it will respond to the looming defense drawdown under sequestration as well as it did to the far deeper cuts of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But this one case study shows that even defense-heavy localities can adapt to lower levels of defense spending. At a minimum, the story serves as an important counterpoint to the AIA’s claims of impending doom.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Defense Lobby, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Bloomberg’s Roxana Tiron reports that Congress is nearing a deal to postpone some of the most contentious provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA) until March 2013, or later. This is good news for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which has been lobbying since late last year to undo at least that portion of the BCA that pertained to the Pentagon’s budget (i.e. that portion that threatens to cut most deeply into its members’ profits).

Although the mechanics of sequestration’s across-the-board cuts are problematic, the scale of the Pentagon build-down would be modest by historical standards. And yet, the mere suggestion that sequestration might actually occur has sent the industry into apoplexy. The AIA’s campaign has included the release of a new report claiming that the BCA cuts could result in over 1 million lost jobs, and warnings that hundreds of thousands of workers would be receiving pink slips just a few days before the November elections.

In short, sequestration is a horror show, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the AIA’s public relations effort is designed to scare the wits out of the audience. “Sequestration,” explains Della Williams, the chief executive of Fort Worth-based Williams-Pyro Inc., “is surgery with a chain saw.”

But just as some people aren’t easily scared by campy slasher flicks, there are still a few people in Washington—especially Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR)—who are cheering for the guy with the chainsaw.

The two sides squared off in separate events last Thursday. At the Bloomberg Government Defense Conference, AIA President Marian Blakey, Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) called for bipartisan compromise on taxes in order to fund further Pentagon spending increases. Judging from the number of times that speakers invoked his name, Norquist posed a greater threat to national security than China or Iran. Levin, in particular, scorned ATR’s famed taxpayers’ pledge, and suggested that it was largely responsible for the impending catastrophe.

Norquist is characteristically unfazed by all this special interest pleading for more money. While Blakey and her congressional friends were attempting to rally the troops and rustle up more money, Norquist was reaffirming his opposition to higher taxes—including the closing of tax loopholes that generate more revenue—at a meeting on Capitol Hill. There is no Pentagon budget escape hatch in ATR’s pledge. If the defense industry wants more, it will have to get it from elsewhere in the budget.

The fight over sequestration, taxes, and the defense budget reveals text book cases of two perennial public policy realities: the politics of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; and the economics of the seen vs. the unseen.

With respect to the first case, the defense industry, broadly defined, benefits disproportionately from Pentagon spending. And that industry can count many interested parties within its coalition. In addition to the defense companies, including the executives and the shareholders, there are also the workers’ at these firms (often represented by a union). Then there are the mayors and local officials who represent communities that are home to defense firms.

Given what is at stake, it is understandable that all of these groups have amped up their lobbying efforts to fend off sequestration. To take just one example, a single F-35 will cost, on average, nearly $125 million ($112.5 million for the aircraft, plus another $22 million for the engine). Prime contractor Lockheed Martin spent $15 million on lobbying in 2011 and is expected to spend even more this year. Such expenses can easily be justified to investors and shareholders if they are seen as protecting the company’s cash cow.

Individual taxpayers, by contrast, have little incentive to organize, and even less incentive to pool their money to fight against the AIA. The cost of the F-35, spread around to every taxpayer, amounts to about a dollar (if we just count the 122 million people who paid federal income taxes). Generally speaking, people do not scrutinize where every tax dollar goes; indeed, payroll tax withholding causes Americans to ignore what they pay in monthly taxes.

A few groups, including Norquist’s ATR, try to offset this imbalance of interests, and they have been reasonably successful. But Norquist’s pledges would be worthless if voters didn’t agree with him. But many do. In this poll (.pdf), for example, half of all respondents were opposed to having their taxes go up in order to pay for higher Pentagon spending.

The AIA’s other line of attack—the claim that substantial cuts in military spending will have a devastating impact on the economy, resulting in a million or more lost jobs—reveals the age-old broken-window fallacy. The AIA wants people to focus on that which is seen—defense workers who are laid off—and to ignore any consideration of how the economy as a whole will be better off if the resources that had previously gone to building planes and rockets are allocated elsewhere in the economy. These transitions are certainly difficult and painful for the individuals and firms involved, but they can be expected, all other factors being equal, to have salutary aggregate effects, especially over the long term. I’ll have more to say on that point later this week, drawing on my previous study of San Diego in the late 1950s, the early 1990s and the early 2000s.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read a succinct explanation of the broken-window fallacy from Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. And, if you’re really motivated, consider reading a less succinct, but more colorful, discussion of the phenomenon by Hazlitt’s intellectual forefather, the French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

How Copyright Industries Con Congress

I’ve yet to encounter a technically clueful person who believes the Stop Online Piracy Act will actually do anything to meaningfully reduce—let alone “stop”—online piracy, and so I haven’t bothered writing much about the absurd numbers the bill’s supporters routinely bandy about in hopes of persuading lawmakers that SOPA will be an economic boon and create zillions of jobs. If the proposed solution just won’t work, after all, why bother quibbling about the magnitude of the problem? But then I saw the very astute David Carr’s otherwise excellent column on SOPA’s pitfalls, which took those inflated numbers more or less as gospel. If only because I’m offended to see bad data invoked so routinely and brazenly, on general principle, it’s important to try to set the record straight. The movie and music recording industry have gotten away with using statistics that don’t stand up to the most minimal scrutiny, over and over, for years, to hoodwink both Congress and the general public. Wherever you come down on any particular piece of legislation, this is not how policy should get made in a democracy, and it’s high time they were shamed into cutting it out.

The bogus numbers Carr cites—which I’ll get to in a moment—actually represent a substantial retreat from even more ludicrous statistics the copyright industries long peddled. In my previous life as the Washington editor for the technology news site Ars Technica, I became curious about two implausible sounding claims I kept seeing made over and over—and repeated by prominent U.S. Senators!—in support of more aggressive antipiracy efforts.  Intellectual property infringement was supposedly costing the U.S. economy $200–250 billion per year, and had killed 750,000 American jobs. That certainly sounded dire, but those numbers looked suspiciously high, and I was having trouble figuring out exactly where they had originated. I did finally run them down, and wrote up the results of my investigation in a long piece for Ars. Read the whole thing for the full, farcical story, but here’s the upshot: The $200–250 billion number had originated in a 1991 sidebar in Forbes, but it was not a measurement of the cost of “piracy” to the U.S. economy. It was an unsourced estimate of the total size of the global market in counterfeit goods. Beyond the obvious fact that these numbers are decades old, counterfeiting of physical goods imported in bulk and sold by domestic retail distributors is, rather obviously, a totally different phenomenon with different policy implications from the problem of illicit individual consumer downloads of movies, music, and software. The 750,000 jobs number had originated in a 1986 speech (yes, 1986) by the secretary of commerce estimating that counterfeiting could cost the United States “anywhere from 130,000 to 750,000” jobs. Nobody in the Commerce Department was able to identify where those figures had come from.

These are the numbers that were driving U.S. copyright policy as recently as 2008—and I’m still seeing them repeated in “fact sheets” circulated by SOPA boosters.  Finally, in 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a report noting that these figures “cannot be substantiated or traced back to an underlying data source or methodology.” Now, if a single journalist could discover as much with a few days work, minimal due diligence should have enabled highly paid lobbyists to arrive at the same conclusion. The only way to explain the longevity of these figures, if we charitably rule out deliberate deception, is to infer that the people repeating them simply did not care whether what they were saying was true. If I were a legislator, I would find this more than a little insulting

As Carr’s piece suggests, SOPA’s corporate backers have fallen back on new numbers, but they’re still entirely bogus:

The Motion Picture Association of America cites figures saying that piracy costs the United States $58 billion annually. Mark Elliot, an executive from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to The New York Times that such piracy threatened 19 million American jobs

Only $58 billion! We’re making progress! So where does that figure come from? The source here is a paper released by the Institute for Policy Innovation, and authored by one Stephen Siwek, an MBA and principal of a consulting firm called Economists Incorporated that produces economic analysis for hire on behalf of (among others) businesses seeking to influence policy makers. That does not, in itself, invalidate the research, but we should at least begin with the recognition that we are not dealing here with impartial academic studies produced by a university or government research agency.

What does invalidate the “research” is the inappropriate use of “multiplier” effects to double—and triple—count loss estimates that were dubious to begin with. As the GAO report notes in its typically understated fashion:

Most of the experts we interviewed were reluctant to use economic multipliers to calculate losses from counterfeiting because this methodology was developed to look at a one-time change in output and employment.

In other words, Siwek is taking a method that’s useful for analyzing where in the economy we will likely see the effects of demand shifts, and pretending that it somehow reflects aggregate economic losses. As my colleague Tim Lee has pointed out, this is Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy on steroids:

[I]n IPI-land, when a movie studio makes $10 selling a DVD to a Canadian, and then gives $7 to the company that manufactured the DVD and $2 to the guy who shipped it to Canada, society has benefited by $10+$7+$2=$19. Yet some simple math shows that this is nonsense: the studio is $1 richer, the trucker is $2, and the manufacturer is $7. Shockingly enough, that adds up to $10. What each participant cares about is his profits, not his revenues.

So, to stay focused on movies, Siwek takes an estimate of $6.1 billion in piracy losses to the U.S. movie industry, and through the magic of multipliers gets us to a more impressive sounding $20.5 billion. That original $6.1 billion figure, by the way, was produced by a study commissioned from LEK Consulting by the Motion Picture Association of America. Since even the GAO was unable to get at the underlying research or evaluate its methodology, it’s impossible to know how reliable that figure is, but given that MPAA has already had to admit significant errors in the numbers LEK generated, I’d take it with a grain of salt.

Believe it or not, though, it’s actually even worse than that. SOPA, recall, does not actually shut down foreign sites. It only requires (ineffective) blocking of foreign “rogue sites” for U.S. Internet users. It doesn’t do anything to prevent users in (say) China from downloading illicit content on a Chinese site. If we’re interested in the magnitude of the piracy harm that SOPA is aimed at addressing, then, the only relevant number is the loss attributable specifically to Internet piracy by U.S. users.

Again, we don’t have the full LEK study, but one of Siwek’s early papers does conveniently reproduce some of LEK’s PowerPoint slides, which attempt to break the data down a bit. Of the total $6.1 billion in annual losses LEK estimated to MPAA studios, the amount attributable to online piracy by users in the United States was $446 million—which, by coincidence, is roughly the amount grossed globally by Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

So in a fantasy world where U.S. movie pirates don’t just circumvent blockage with a browser plugin, and SOPA actually stops all online movie piracy by American users, we get a $446 million economic benefit to the United States in the form of movie revenues, and presumably comparable benefits in music and software revenues? Well, no. Remember our old friend the Broken Window Fallacy. It’s true that some illicit U.S. downloads displace sales of legal products. But what happens to the money the pirates would have otherwise spent on those legal copies? They don’t eat it! As that same GAO report helpfully points out:

(1) in the case that the counterfeit good has similar quality to the original, consumers have extra disposable income from purchasing a less expensive good, and (2) the extra disposable income goes back to the U.S. economy, as consumers can spend it on other goods and services.

As one expert consulted by GAO put it, “effects of piracy within the United States are mainly redistributions within the economy for other purposes and that they should not be considered as a loss to the overall economy.” In many cases—I’ve seen research suggesting it’s about 80 percent for music—a U.S. consumer would not have otherwise purchased an illicitly downloaded song or movie if piracy were not an option. Here, the result is actually pure consumer surplus: The downloader enjoys the benefit, and the producer loses nothing. In the other 20 percent of cases, the result is a loss to the content industry, but not a let loss to the economy, since the money just ends up being spent elsewhere. If you’re concerned about the overall jobs picture, as opposed to the fortunes of a specific industry, there is no good reason to think eliminating piracy by U.S. users would yield any jobs on net, though it might help boost employment in copyright-intensive sectors. (Oh, and that business about 19 million jobs? Also bogus.)

Does that mean online piracy is harmless? Of course not. But the harm is a dynamic loss in allocative efficiency, which is much harder to quantify. That is, in the cases where a consumer would have been willing to buy an illicitly downloaded movie, album, or software program, we want the market to be accurately signalling demand for the products people value, rather than whatever less-valued use that money gets spent on instead. This is, in fact, very important! It’s a good reason to look for appropriately tailored ways to reduce piracy, so that the market devotes resources to production of new creativity and innovation valued by consumers, rather than to other, less efficient purposes. Indeed, it’s a good reason to look for ways of doing this that, unlike SOPA, might actually work.

It is not, however, a good reason to spend $47 million in taxpayer dollars—plus untold millions more in ISP compliance costs—turning the Justice Department into a pro bono litigation service for Hollywood in hopes of generating a jobs and a revenue bonanza for the U.S. economy. Any “research” suggesting we can expect that kind of result from Internet censorship is a fiction more fanciful than singing chipmunks.

I’ve Never Seen an Unbroken Window Create Jobs

Such is, literally, the wisdom of retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who (according to ThinkProgress) said:

I’ve never seen a tax cut put out a fire. I’ve never seen a tax cut build a bridge.

That is the equivalent of saying, “I’ve never seen an unbroken window create jobs, so let’s break this one.”

Frank either never read his Bastiat, or didn’t understand what he read.

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.”

Paul Krugman Meets E.T.

I’ve poked fun at Paul Krugman for his views on health care and British fiscal policy, and I’ve semi-defended him about unemployment subsidies and housing bubbles.

Now it’s time for some more mockery.

Back in 2001, Paul Krugman received some much-deserved criticism for stating that the 9/11 terrorist attacks would be stimulative for the economy.

He committed the “broken-window” fallacy, explained more than 150 years ago by a famous French economist, Frederic Bastiat.

Breaking a window at the local bakery, Bastiat explained, might generate business for the town glazier, but only at the expense of some other merchant, like a tailor, who would have benefited if the baker didn’t have to spend money on a new window.

In other words, the destruction of wealth is not good for an economy. At best, it makes us poorer and then shifts how current income is allocated. This is why Bastiat wrote (perhaps predicting the emergence of Krugman):

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.

But we have to give Krugman credit for a bizarre form of ideological consistency. He is willing to advocate bigger government, no matter how sloppy the reasoning or how quirky the rationale.

His latest outburst was to say on CNN how wonderful it would be for the economy if the people of earth mistakenly thought we were on the verge of an alien invasion, which would lead to lots of military spending.

He even cited an episode of Twilight Zone to justify his assertions. I’m surprised he didn’t also mention the 1996 film, Independence Day.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, this is one of those moments when your only response is to say “wow.” This is even worse than when Keynesians assert that it would be stimulative to pay people to dig holes and fill them in again.

For those who want more info on why government spending does not boost the economy in the short run, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.



And if you want to know why government spending does not boost the economy in the long run, here’s a video looking at some empirical evidence about economic performance and the size of the public sector.



Should the Government Ban ATMs and Create “Spoon-ready” Projects?

At the Britannica Blog today I note President Obama’s concern over ATMs, Hillary Clinton’s support for the candlemakers’ petition, John Maynard Keynes’s simple solution to the problem of unemployment—and how Bastiat refuted all their arguments more than 150 years ago:

And there’s your question for President Obama: Do you really think the United States would be better off if we didn’t have ATMs and check-in kiosks? …  And do you think we’d be better off if we mandated that all these “shovel-ready projects” be performed with spoons?

In his 1988 book The American Job Machine, the economist Richard B. McKenzie pointed out an easy way to create 60 million jobs: “Outlaw farm machinery.” The goal of economic policy should not be job creation per se; it should be a growing economy that continually satisfies more consumer demand. And such an economy will be marked by creative destruction. Some businesses will be created, others will fail. Some jobs will no longer be needed, but in a growing economy more will be created… .

Finding new and more efficient ways to deliver goods and services to consumers is called economic progress. We should not seek to impede that process, whether through protectionism, breaking windows, throwing towels on the floor, or fretting about automation.

More here.