Cash for Congress – err – Clunkers

Cash for clunkers seems to be all the rage this week.  Hundreds of news stories and blog posts are telling everyone how successful it is, how it RAN OUT OF MONEY IN ONE WEEK when it was supposed to last until November, and how this will boost the economy.


Here’s an excerpt from the Daily explaining why it’s bullshit.

And as Bill has been pointing out, this is just another example of the government promoting the idea that the future doesn’t matter – just spend for today. He wrote in Friday’s essay: “Instead of letting the consumer buy a new car when he is ready, the feds give them money to buy now. So, he buys in 2009 and not in 2010. What good is accomplished? It is as if they didn’t expect 2010 to ever arrive…”

The Wall Street Journal backs us up here: “The subsidy won’t add to net national wealth, since it merely transfers money to one taxpayer’s pocket from someone else’s, and merely pays that taxpayer to destroy a perfectly serviceable asset in return for something he might have bought anyway. By this logic, everyone should burn the sofa and dining room set and refurnish the homestead every couple of years.”

This is what’s known as the “broken window fallacy” that I posted about in February 2008.  It’s a classic story and you can read all about it on the link, but here’s the main part as told by Henry Hazlitt’s classic “Economics in One Lesson” (Which I urge you to read.) It’s copied from my earlier post -which was copied from Lew Rockwell’s post on

A kid throws a rock at a window and breaks it, and everyone standing around regrets the unfortunate state of affairs. But then up walks a man who purports to be wise and all knowing. He points out that this is not a bad thing after all. The man fixing the window will get money for doing so. This will then be spent on a new suit, and the tailor too will get money. The tailor will spend money on other items, and the circle of rising prosperity will expand without end.

What’s wrong with this scenario? As Bastiat put it, “It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is 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. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident has prevented.”

You can see the absurdity of the position of the wise commentator when you take it to absurd extremes. If the broken window really produces wealth, why not break all windows up and down the whole city block? Indeed, why not break doors and walls? Why not tear down all houses so that they can be rebuilt? Why not bomb whole cities so construction firms can get busy rebuilding?

It is not a good thing to destroy wealth. Bastiat puts it this way: “Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed.”

It sounds like an unexceptional claim. But herein rests the core case against everything the government does. Perhaps, then, we can see why the allegory is not better known. If we took it seriously, we would dismantle the whole apparatus of American economic intervention.

If you are with me to this point, perhaps you have a hard time believing that anyone really believes that wealth destruction is actually a good thing. Let me try to show that the fallacy is as pervasive as ever.

After every natural disaster, we at the Mises Institute start what we call the “Broken Window Watch.”

After hurricane Katrina, the Labor Secretary said, “[W]hat will happen — and I have seen this in previous catastrophes and hurricanes — there is a bright spot in that new jobs do get created.”

And The Economist said, “While big hurricanes like Katrina destroy wealth, they often have a net positive effect on GDP growth, as the temporary downturn immediately after the storm is more than made up for by the burst of economic activity that takes place when the rebuilding begins.”

And the New York Times said, “Economists point out that although Katrina has destroyed a lot of accumulated wealth, it ultimately will probably have a positive effect on growth data over the next few months as resources are channeled into rebuilding.”

That’s what we’re doing with Cash for Clunkers.  We’re diverting capital from where it would naturally go into a program to destroy valuable assets and replace them.

Why not apply the concept elsewhere? How about cash for houses? Cash for liquor? Cash for newspapers? Cash for trips to Europe?

Yes, there will be a temporary boost to the economy, but it comes at the expense of next year, and the next year, and the next year.  WHO IS PAYING FOR IT?  We all are, and all we’re actually doing is postponing the day of reckoning.  You cannot borrow your way out of debt, and that’s what this program is trying to do.



One Response

  1. […] we go again….  I just posted about the broken window fallacy on Saturday, and here comes Eric Zencey writing in the NY Times trying to claim that “If you get into a […]

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