Posts tagged ‘broken windows fallacy’

Worst Argument for Regulation Ever

We generally use startup activity as a proxy for positive innovation and future increases in productivity and consumer value.  But it is only a proxy - based on the theory that in a free economy new startups generally add new value or die.  Startups per se are not inherently positive, especially when all they are doing is fixing the inefficiencies and mandates imposed by government regulation

I wrote about a new study suggesting that new federal regulation doesn't inhibit the creation of new startup companies in an industry. In fact, it might actually stimulate the creation of startups. This seems counterintuitive, but a reader with some experience in the education and health care sectors—which were influenced by NCLB and Obamacare, respectively—proposes an explanation for this:

Healthcare startups have absolutely exploded post-ACA....This was pretty well anticipated by venture capital; a bunch of Sand Hill firms started putting together ad-hoc health IT teams shortly after the ACA was passed, on the basic logic that anything that changed an industry as much as the ACA did would necessarily create a lot of startup opportunities.

Drum says, well this may be good or may be bad.  Look, it HAS to be bad.  All this investment and activity is going into trying to get back to even from productivity losses imposed by the government, or is being spent addressing government mandates for new services that the market did not want or value.  This is a diversion of resources from new value-creation to fixing things, and as such is just the broken windows fallacy re-written in a new form.

The language he is using, of shaking things up, is a bit like that of chemistry.  He seems to imagine that markets can reach and get stuck in local maxima, so that government action that shakes the system out of these maxima (like annealing in a metal) is positive in that it allows the system to progress to a better state over time even if the government's action initially makes things worse.  I know of absolutely no evidence for this being true, and my strong suspicion given how many industries the government has trashed is that this is rare or non-existent.  And impossible to spot, even if it did exist.  Not to mention the fact it is a total joke to talk of health care as if it was some pristine untouched-by-government industry before Obamacare.

Frédéric Bastiat, Call Your Office

From the AZ Republic:

The owner of a glass company accused of a $132,000 scheme to smash Scottsdale school bus windows and profit from the repairs has been indicted.

A Maricopa County grand jury returned the Jan. 22 indictment against Troy Jason Vollberg, 34, who was arrested Friday by Scottsdale police....

documents accuse Vollberg, owner of Tri-State Glass, of being the mastermind behind an effort nearly two years ago to bilk the Scottsdale Unified School District out of hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace broken bus windshields.

Investigators claim Vollberg paid Scott Sloan $5,000 to find a person to knock out the glass, and then paid Mike Olivares $15,000 in April 2007 to break out the front windshields of 70 school buses in a Scottsdale bus yard.

Vollberg, whose company was a subcontractor for the school district, charged the district $134,000 to repair the windshields.

Police documents say Vollberg pocketed the money and used it for a "trip to Las Vegas and new tires for his truck."

Arrested for acting on the broken windows fallacy!  If only we could do the same with the Congressional authors of the stimulus bill.

More on "Green Jobs"

It is interesting watching a group of folks sink into mass hypnosis.  Specifically, much of the left is working really hard to convince itself that obsoleting much of the current energy and transportation infrastructure and raising the price of electricity and fuel will result in net jobs growth.  And, that despite 100 years of failure in countries too numerous to name, the government will suddenly become able to successfully plan and manage investment to the greatest economic benefit.  Here is just one example:

My meditation comes in the wake of reading an article about green jobs. Obama and (other) progressives have been making a case for government spending to develop a green energy infrastructure. As Van Jones said in his powerful speech at GreenFest, that's how we got the highway system and the space program that, to some extent, fueled the prosperity of the 50s.

The article makes the point that when the government picks favorites, it sometimes picks wrong, terribly wrong, as is the case with ethanol. That had me scratching my head for a minute, but then I remembered some key differences:

  • Ethanol was an invention, lock stock and barrel, of the agribusiness lobby. It wasn't promoted by scientists as a good source of energy, as solar power is.
  • The government already picks winners. It gives huge subsidies and incentives to the fossil fuel industry.
  • If solar power turns out to be a boondoggle like ethanol, we should push the government to dump its incentives.

However, it seems unlikely that solar power will be such a dud, given that it's already boosting the economy as a sole sector of growth in these bleak economic times, according to the L.A. Times article.

Here was my response (with some links and additional thoughts added) from his comments section:

With your ethanol statement, aren't you contradicting your point about the government's ability to make sensible energy choices?  I agree that ethanol is a bad energy and environmental strategy, and that most scientists who were not industry shills thought it a break-even proposition at best.  But the fact is that Congresses and Administrations of both parties have backed tens of billions of subsidies for ethanol.  No matter what the rhetoric, when the rubber hits the road, politicians make political, not sensible, decisions.

The study you cited a while back about job gains is just silly - most economists laughed it off.  The study claimed 1.5 million net job gains from California electricity and energy efficiency regulations.  Based on October job numbers, this would mean 9.8% of Californians in October would not have had a job if these regulations hadn't been passed.  Really?  Does this pass any kind of smell test?  These regulations created a few visible jobs and killed some invisible jobs, which is how politicians always manipulate these numbers in their favor.

California has low per capita electricity consumptions primarily for three reasons:  1) it has the mildest climate in the country (when weighted for population location) 2) it has among the ten highest state-average electricity prices in the country and 3) its regulatory regime has driven a disproportionate number of heavy industrial electricity users out of the state (as demonstrated by manufacturing job losses higher than the national average and a low percentage of industrial electricity use vs. other states).

One may believe all of these things are a good thing from an environmental standpoint, but they certainly don't add up to net job gains.  Since you often drape yourself in the scientific mantle when responding to climate skeptics, I will do the same -- economics a science, and it is just as bad to willfully ignore this science as any other.  Claiming that being forced, by CO2 concerns, to obsolete current energy infrastructure and rebuild it in a different form is a gain to the economy is falling into Bastiat's broken window fallacy.

But here is the real argument for not letting the government pick winners -- any small body of people, no matter how smart, has too little information to do such planning on a national scale.  The better alternative is simply to raise the price (ie via a carbon tax) of the fuel or electricity that is viewed to have a high environmental cost (the tax can be made less regressive by offsetting the tax with a reduction in payroll taxes).

When prices rise due to the tax, you don't have a few hundred folks in government trying to figure out how to reduce demand, you have 300 million people trying to figure out how to reduce their consumption  (or start a business to help others reduce their consumption), all with their own knowledge of the opportunities they see around them.  Technocrats hate this kind of solution -- its too anarchic, its not "controlled" or "planned" -- but the fact is that it works.  In a large sense, since you are the environmental guy, I will say that it's more like nature.  Nature isn't planned or controlled from above - order and behaviors emerge bottom up from the responses of individual living things to stimulus.

Q: What's The Fastest Way to Get 5 Million Green Jobs?

A:  Start with 10 million current jobs.

Kenneth Green argues that Obama's claim that obsoleting current infrastructure and requiring its replacement with new, greener infrastucture creates jobs is just the broken windows fallacy  (where have you heard anyone else say that?)

If Obama's energy promises rely on questionable science, they rely on even more questionable economics. We are to believe that replacing conventional energy sources (especially coal) with renewables (especially wind) will create 5 million new "green jobs." The hope is that armies of workers will be enlisted to build
tens of thousands of windmills; to manufacture and deploy solar-power installations; to harvest, transport, and process huge amounts of biofuel feedstock; and to string the power lines that will allow the U.S. power grid to incorporate a major expansion of intermittent energy.

Unfortunately, the idea of government "job creation" is a classic example of the broken window fallacy, which was explained by French economist Frédéric Bastiat way back in 1850. It is discouraging to think that nearly 160 years later, politicians still do not understand Bastiat's basic economic insight...

Now consider Obama's "green jobs" plan, which includes regulations, subsidies, and renewable-power mandates. The "broken windows" in this case would be lost jobs and lost capital in the coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and automobile industries. Currently, these industries directly employ more than 1 million people.
Conventional power plants would be closed, and massive amounts of energy infrastructure would be dismantled. After breaking these windows, the Obama plan would then create new jobs in the renewable
energy sector. The costs of replacing those windows would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers and energy consumers.

Good. Now We Have It On The Table

I am happy to see that Barack Obama is not entirely in reality-avoidance mode with his climate policy:

You know, when I was asked earlier about the issue of coal, uh, you know "” Under my plan of a cap and trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket. Even regardless of what I say about whether coal is good or bad. Because I'm capping greenhouse gases, coal power plants, you know, natural gas, you name it "” whatever the plants were, whatever the industry was, uh, they would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that money on to consumers.

To folks with any kind of background in economics, this has to be the case.  Reducing the total output of current power plants, and thereby obsoleting all that investment and squeezing supply, at least in the medium term until new capacity of other types can be built, can only lead to a) rationing through blackouts or b) higher prices to ration the shorter supply.  The cost of option a is so high that price is going to have to be the rationing mechanism.  Skyrocket is actually pretty close to what would happen to rates if Obama sticks by his plan of limiting greenhouse gasses to 1990 or earlier levels.  (His explanation is actually pretty poor for the mechanism - pass-through of retrofit costs would likely be minor to the supply / demand balancing effect of shaving 20/30% off supply in a short period of time.

I think a frank discussion of the dangers of a "pollutant" vs. the cost of abatement is a fair one.  I personally think the threat of CO2 is wildly exaggerated, and the cost of doubling or tripling electricity costs will hurt Americans far worse than a few tenths of a degree of warming.

But don't get too excited.  Obama is still living in economic never-never land on other related issues:

yes, there is going to be some increase in electricity rates on the front end, but that over the long term, because of combinations of more efficient energy usage, changing lightbulbs and more efficient appliance, but also technology improving how we can produce clean energy, the economy would benefit.

Sorry, but this is way wrong.  Obsoleting perfectly good infrastructure and wholesale replacing it with trillions of dollars of new infrastructure does not help the economy any more than if a massive earthquake had destroyed the plants.  This is the broken windows fallacy on steroids.  The only benefit from all this cost will be whatever climate benefit we accrue from the CO2 reduction.  For there to be such a benefit, one must assume a) substantial future warming and b) that the current temperature happens to be the best possible temperature we could ever be at.  But that, as they say, is a whole other blog.

The Hands That Currently Produce Things People Actually Want Can Also Fix Broken Windows

If you have watched the Olympics at all, you have likely seen the Obama commercial promising:

"The hands that install roofs can also install solar panels. The hands
that build today's cars can also build the next generation of
fuel-efficient vehicles. Barack Obama [will] ... create 5 million jobs developing homegrown energy technologies."

A few reactions:

  • Private individuals, not politicians, create jobs
  • Job promises like this are never incremental, nor can they be.  If the hands that build current SUV's can build electric cars instead, then we haven't added any new hands, we've just changed what they are working on.
  • It strikes me that this is the broken windows fallacy writ large.  In effect, Obama promises to make much of our perfectly-serviceable transportation and electrical generation installed base obsolete, requiring an enormous effort to replace it.  But the resources to fund this huge new investment have to come from somewhere.  Industries that flourish and grow under this government enforced shift in capital will be offset by those that are starved.  Every other part of the economy will slow due either to higher taxes or higher prices (or both) that subsidize this effort.  But since it is harder to find and count the latter than the former, it makes for a good, un-auditable political pledge
  • I'll bet that 5 million number focus groups really well, but does it make any sense at all?  Here are some current employment numbers for the US as of January, 2008:

Construction of power generation facilities:           137,000
Power generation and supply:           399,000
Production of power gen. equipment           105,000
Production of transportation equipment (planes, trains, autos, boats,

OK, so the total employment of all these industries that might be related to an alternate energy effort is about 2.28 million.  So, to add 5 million incremental jobs would require tripling the size of the utility industry, tripling the size of the utility construction and equipment industry, tripling the size of the auto industry, tripling the size of the aircraft industry, and tripling the size of the shipbuilding industry.  And even then we would be a bit short of Obama's number.