Broken Window Fallacy, On Steroids

Economics have a concept called the "broken window fallacy" that many of the media to this day do not understand.  Here is an example:  Every hurricane season, the media always writes a "silver lining" story about how recovery from a devastating hurricane spurred the local economy.  One might assume from this reasoning that it is good to go around breaking windows, since one will make a lot of work for glaziers and boost the economy.  The problem is what is not measured.  What would the money that was spent on window replacement have been spent on instead?  It is a safe presumption that had they not had to repair storm damage, they would have spent the money on something more productive  (test:  if this were not true, everyone would be breaking their own windows).  Advocating the broken window fallacy is a bit like saying that stealing money from banks would increase the savings rate, since people would have to deposit even more money to replace that which was stolen.

Anyway, I bring this example up because today I saw the most amazing example of the broken window fallacy I have ever seen, via Kevin Drum and Business Week:

 Business Week's cover story in their current issue tells us that healthcare inefficiency is what's keeping the American economy afloat:

The
very real problems with the health-care system mask a simple fact:
Without it the nation's labor market would be in a deep coma.  Since 2001, 1.7 million new jobs have been added in the health-care sector, which includes related
industries such as pharmaceuticals and health insurance. Meanwhile, the
number of private-sector jobs outside of health care is no higher than
it was five years ago.

.... The U.S. unemployment rate is 4.7%, compared with 8.2% and
8.9%, respectively, in Germany and France. But the health-care systems
of those two countries added very few jobs from 1997 to 2004, according
to new data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation &
Development, while U.S. hospitals and physician offices never stopped
growing. Take away health-care hiring in the U.S., and quicker than you
can say cardiac bypass, the U.S. unemployment rate would be 1 to 2
percentage points higher.

....Both sides can agree that more spending on information
technology could reduce the need for so many health-care workers. It's
a truism in economics that investment boosts productivity, and the U.S.
lags behind other countries in this area. One reason: "Every other
country has the payers paying for IT," says Johns Hopkins' Gerard
Anderson, an expert on the economics of health care. "In the U.S. we're
asking the providers to pay for IT" "” and they're not the ones who
benefit.

Let's go back to slow-motion instant replay.  What was that first line?

Business Week's cover story in their current issue tells us that healthcare inefficiency is what's keeping the American economy afloat

I am not seeing things, am I?  Did he really write that it is the inefficiency of one of the largest and most ubiquitous and perhaps most important industries in the country that is propelling the economy?  Do I really have to state the obvious?  Do you really think that if all those people were not hired to push paper around in health care they would be sitting unemployed today?  What about all the money either consumers or corporations would be saving from more efficiency -- would that really not have been spent on something else?

In a way, I guess this is sort of consistent with Drum's position on Wal-Mart.  If Wal-Mart is detroying the economy (according to him) by bringing increased productivity to retail, I guess this argument that health care inefficiency helps the economy is at least consistent.  Maybe if we could get our state drivers' license agency folks to take over the whole economy, we would have a boom! And the old Soviet Union must have been an economic powerhouse!

This is some of the worst economics I have seen in a while.  Lefties like Drum often rail against conservatives for being anti-scientific in their opposition to teaching evolution or approving the morning-after pill, but for God sakes the most fundamentalist Bible-belt home schooled conservative Christian probably knows more about the science of evolution than journalists understand about the science of economics.

  • http://perich.livejournal.com John P.

    The BusinessWeek article itself makes the point (though they bury it good and deep) that government spending fuels a lot of healthcare's impact on the economy. That, I think, is something that merits genuine worry, as that's not a pace that can be maintained forever.

  • http://shrimplate.blogspot.com/ shrimplate

    Healthcare doesn't produce anything.

    A healthy person gets sick. They go to the hospital and between their insurance and their own copays, they drop a hundred $ large.

    They come out a little less healthy than they were before they got sick.

    Nothing really gets *built* or created in this industry. It's a model of inefficiency.