Get ready for a bunch of demand-side economists to tell you that the post-Hurricane Irene rebuilding phase is actually a good thing for future economic growth. But don’t believe it.
Who has it right?
Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR, Inc., delivered my favorite quote on the subject to the New York Times: “If you’re in the middle of recession, you just wander around blowing up buildings, and that would be your path to prosperity. And clearly that’s not the case. It’s not the case with a natural disaster either.”
Echoing this thought, Ian Shepherdson, the chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, bluntly noted on CNBC’s website that “no one is made better off by the destruction of their home or workplace.” He acknowledged the benefits of reconstruction work, but he dismissed the idea that somehow this is a net win for the economy.
It sounds to me like both of these gentlemen are recalling the parable of the broken window, introduced by French free-market philosopher Frederic Bastiat in an 1850 essay called “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Unseen.” While Bastiat agrees that repairing broken windows is a good thing, encouraging the glazier’s trade and income, he argues that it is quite different from the idea that breaking windows is a good thing, in that it would cause money to circulate and encourage industry in general.
Why? Because a shopkeeper who spends money to fix broken windows cannot spend or invest that money on new ventures.
“It’s not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library,” wrote Bastiat. “In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.”
In other words, the business people who are spending to fix the damage of Hurricane Irene are not spending or investing that money on brand-new ventures or start-ups, or on ordinary goods and services. That’s the real economics of Hurricane Irene.
There was a lot of damage incurred along 1,100 miles of U.S. coastline. Tragically, 28 deaths have been reported so far. There were toppled trees, power-line disruptions, and flooding on damaged roads. Homes, commercial buildings, and factories all stopped for at least a couple of days. In some sense, the human distress has been even greater than the economic distress.