Broken Window Theory: An Argument Against Government Stimulus Programs

Jared Dillian |

An old friend from the Coast Guard visited me over the weekend. He is retired and now works as an emergency planner.

If there’s one thing government folks do, it is plan. But many times I’ve seen plans go out the window when emergency strikes and people start to improvise. Or maybe the planned-for emergency never materializes. Maybe you get a different emergency you didn’t plan for. The anarchist in me says that plans are useless. But I agree that it’s good to think about these things ahead of time.

So my friend and I got to talking about hurricanes, which is a specialty of his. He told me that no hurricane has ever scored a direct hit on my piece of the South Carolina coast (I live just a few yards away from the beach). Hurricanes have hit north of me and south of me, but in the recorded history of hurricanes, none have ever hit here, at least, not a direct hit by one of the big ones.

I’m not sure if that makes me feel good or not. If my house did sustain a direct hit, smell you later.

But it got me thinking about when I was working at Lehman Brothers in 2004, when Hurricane Katrina hit. Were you active in the markets back then? If so, you probably remember that stocks ripped to the upside, particularly energy and construction companies that would have to repair all the damage. Of course, the insurance stocks got killed.

I was 30 years old back then and not really steeped in economic thought. None of us were. We were traders, not philosophers. But we were all sitting around wondering why the stock market was ripping when the hurricane was clearly going to wipe out a huge city. Made no sense.

My answer was that the winners from Katrina were probably publicly traded, while the losers weren’t.

But does anybody win from a hurricane in the first place?

The Parable of the Broken Window

You may have heard of the “Broken Window Fallacy,” where a boy throws a rock through a storefront window, breaking it. The shopkeeper must hire the glazier to come fix the window. He pays him 50 bucks, thereby stimulating business in town.

Everyone sees this and says, “Gee whiz, a kid breaks a window and suddenly there’s 50 bucks in circulation. Hey kid, why don’t you run around town and break the rest of the windows?”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it before—from an economist named Frédéric Bastiat.

Bastiat basically comes up with the ideas of opportunity cost and unintended consequences simultaneously, when he observes that if the shopkeeper did not spend 50 bucks to fix his window, he might have spent it on something else more productive. What, we don’t know. But we can assume that he knows best how to spend the 50 bucks, at least better than the kid who broke his window.

Bastiat is one of the forefathers of libertarian/Austrian economics, and he often talked about the things that are unseen in finance. A good example is the minimum wage debate, which we talked about briefly in last month’s issue of Bull’s Eye Investor.

The layman thinks if you raise the price of labor to $15/hour by fiat—yay, people are making $15! But generally what happens is that some people will see their wages drop to $0/hour, because the bossman had $150 to spend on labor to begin with, and he can either hire 20 people at $7.50/hour or 10 people at $15/hour.

If you think the bossman should somehow operate at a loss to accommodate everyone at the higher wage, then we can have a nice discussion on the role of profit in society.

Bastiat is the reason I come to work every day, because there are so many people who have believed, and will always believe, that you can fix the price of something at x just because 51% of the voters said so.

Keynesian Stimulus

One of the great tragedies of the financial crisis was the $780 billion we shelled out for the giant stimulus package. Wow, was that bad, for a lot of reasons.

I remember driving around and getting stuck in construction and seeing these stupid signs everywhere:

So back to Bastiat, why was the stimulus bad? We spent $780 billion basically paving the same roads over and over again. It was one step up from digging holes and filling them back in. And just like in the broken window example, sure, some people got rich off it.

But what would the taxpayers have done with $780 billion, aside from paving roads? Probably some pretty interesting stuff. Possibly they could have thought of better things to do with it than paving roads. Even if they had saved it, that’s $780 billion less the government would have had to borrow, which would have lowered interest rates and increased credit availability for private borrowers.

The counterargument is that if you go back to the 1930s when we did all this Keynesian stimulus (the Hoover Dam, etc.), that it worked in getting us out of the Great Depression. Did it? Maybe it made the depression worse. You can’t go back in time and not have the Keynesian stimulus and see what happens.

In US history classes over the years, FDR has generally gotten credit for ending the depression, but more and more scholars are beginning to challenge that idea.

Captain Facepalm

I think these things are pretty obvious. I can’t figure out why people have such a difficult time seeing them. I can’t figure out why Nobel Prize winners can’t see them.

Any economic intervention, no matter how slight, causes unintended consequences. There are things that you cannot see, that the planner cannot anticipate. There are also easy ones. If you cap the price of a good, there will be a shortage. If you put a floor on it, there will be a surplus.

If you make it hard for people to trade swaps, you might reduce liquidity and push people into other, potentially more risky products.

I’ll be here all week. Tip your server. Try the veal.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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