Economic fallacy alive in Kansas at Docking Institute

As reported in the Wichita Business Journal at wichita.bizjournals.com/wichita/stories/2007/03/19/daily26.html, the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University has produced a report that seems to say that the $727 million deferred-maintenance backlog at Kansas universities is, well, really a good thing.

(The report is available to read at www.kansasregents.org/maintenance.html)

Why? Quoting from the press release that accompanies the report: “This report displays the substantial and positive economic impact that a comprehensive state university building maintenance funding solution would have on the state’s economy,” said Reginald L. Robinson, President and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents. “University maintenance funding would produce a dramatic ripple effect through the state’s economy creating thousands of new jobs, millions of dollars in increased earnings, and billions of dollars in increased state economic output. As state policymakers continue to focus on ways to improve the state’s economy, they need not look any farther than our crumbling state universities.”

After reading this, it is tempting to wish that our universities were in even worse condition. By fixing them, we could really ramp up our state’s economy!

But I am saddened to conclude that the authors of this report see only the immediate effects of the spending they promote. They fail to see the secondary effects. As Henry Hazlitt wrote in his classic work Economics in One Lesson:

This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences. (emphasis added)

It’s easy to fall victim to this type of thinking. The economist Walter E. Williams summarizes the broken window fallacy that Frederic Bastiat recognized long ago:

Bastiat wrote a parable about this that has become known as the “Broken Window Fallacy.” A shopkeeper’s window is broken by a vandal. A crowd forms, sympathizing with the man, but pretty soon, the people start to suggest the boy wasn’t guilty of vandalism; instead, he was a public benefactor, creating economic benefits for everyone in town. After all, fixing the broken window creates employment for the glazier, who will then buy bread and benefit the baker, who will then buy shoes and benefit the cobbler, and so forth.

Those are the seen effects of the broken window. What’s unseen is what the shopkeeper would have done with the money had the vandal not broken his window. He might have employed the tailor by purchasing a suit. The broken window produced at least two unseen effects. First, it shifted unemployment from the glazier, who now has a job, to the tailor, who doesn’t. Second, it reduced the shopkeeper’s wealth. Explicitly, had it not been for the vandalism, the shopkeeper would have had a window and a suit; now, he has just a window.

As Professor Williams also brought to our attention, even educated people such as Princeton economist Paul Krugman failed to take into account all factors — the broken window fallacy that Bastiat recognized — when he wrote in The New York Times that the destruction of the World Trade Center “could do some economic good.”

In general, public works — like fixing the universities — are promoted as job-generators. It is as though the jobs generated come at no cost. But that’s just not true. Here’s Hazlitt discussing the building of a bridge:

… The first argument is that it will provide employment. It will provide, say, 500 jobs for a year. The implication is that these are jobs that would not otherwise have come into existence.

This is what is immediately seen. But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group of bridge workers may receive more employment than otherwise. But the bridge has to be paid for out of taxes. For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers. If the bridge costs $1,000,000 the taxpayers will lose $1,000,000. They will have that much taken away from them which they would otherwise have spent on the things they needed most.

Therefore for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $1,000,000 taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project. More bridge builders; fewer automobile workers, radio technicians, clothing workers, farmers.

There really is no free lunch. What Kansans spend on university repairs can’t be spent on something else.

Should Kansas spend the money that the Regents are asking for to repair the universities? Because it fails to recognize the secondary effects of the proposed spending, the analysis put forth by the Docking Institute doesn’t answer that question.

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