Mortgage Delinquencies and the "Broken Window Fallacy"

February 19th, 2011
in Op Ed

broken window by Rick Davis

We have received a number of thought provoking responses to our back-of-the-envelope calculations about the impact of mortgage delinquencies (and so-called "strategic defaults") on consumer spending. One such correspondence has been with Jeff Harding at The Daily Capitalist. Jeff correctly pointed out that our calculations ignored the offsetting damages that the defaults were inflicting on banks, making the spending gains that we calculated a present-day example of Bastiat's "Broken Window Fallacy."

For those unfamiliar with the
"Broken Window Fallacy", in 1850 Claude Frederic Bastiat published an essay containing an economic parable that illustrated the hidden costs associated with destroying the property of others. Bastiat imagined a situation where a shopkeeper's son carelessly breaks a window in the shop. The fallacy centers on subsequent comments by onlookers -- who offered that "it is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?" The onlookers (and by extension most casual economic observers) sense that the shopkeeper's loss is the glazier's gain, a zero-sum game.

Follow up:

Bastiat asserted that the onlookers completely missed the macro-economic loss of the previously productive window. If the shopkeeper had not needed the replacement window, he might very well have used those same funds to purchase new shoes from the cobbler. When you include the cobbler's lost sale, it is no longer a zero-sum game. Ultimately the economy is net poorer by the amount of the capital lost when the window was broken.

Although our perspective of the economy is limited to what on-line consumers are doing, Jeff has persuasively argued that Bastiat would ask: "What would the banks have done with the money? Most likely lend more, create more credit for the economy, replace the store of real capital, pay salaries to employees, make profits ... What the economy needs now is not (consumer) spending, but savings."

We agree that more pain for the banks probably does not bode well for the economy down the road. And however unsympathetic the character of some banks may be, at some fundamental level large-scale defaulting on debt contracts is a defacto violation of the rule of law that is essential to any desirable society.

The Broken Window Twists

There are, however, some interesting twists to the present-day incarnation of the parable. In no particular order:

1) The sainted John Maynard Keynes would disagree that there is any fallacy involved at all. He was so focused on what he mis-labeled as a "Paradox of Thrift" that he literally felt that the ultimate goal of governmental stimuli was simply to spend, however wasteful that spending may be. He would have lauded the shopkeeper's son for stimulating the economy.

2) In Bastiat's parable the fallacy is fundamentally based on the fact that there is a net macro-economic loss: the broken window is itself a loss of productive capital for the economic collective. It is not a zero-sum game. In the case of present-day mortgage defaulters, however, the sums are somewhat more muddled. In many (if not most) cases the ultimate economic loss will be shouldered by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac; i.e., the American taxpayers. This means that most of the $90 billion per year in delinquency "found money" is ultimately coming from Mr. Bernanke. The sainted John Maynard would love it.

3) Again, in the parable there is an implication that the loss was neither natural nor inevitable, but rather a case of third-party carelessness -- for which the shopkeeper is blameless. It is hard to see how bankers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and politically motivated HUD administrators are blameless for the present-day debacle. Would Bastiat still see a fallacy in his parable if the glazing had failed because of the shopkeeper's bad maintenance decisions?

It is probable that in the end a large portion of the $90 billion per year in delinquency/default "found money" will simply be a transfer of taxpayer funds to the most financially stressed subset of American consumers -- in some regards not at all that functionally different from extending unemployment benefits. And while the banks are hardly blameless shopkeepers, it may also be hard to find taxpaying Americans that didn't benefit to at least some extent from the same asset bubble that eventually blew out the window. The ultimate collective loss from this particular incarnation of Bastiat's parable may lie in the memories of the rewards reaped by those institutions that have most egregiously abused moral hazards, and the wealth transferred to those individuals who have successfully shirked debt. The real losses may be in the sanctity and innocence of credit obligations.

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1 comment

  1. jim.whitman (Member) Email says :

    I'm not so sure myself what Keynes would have said about Bastiat's paradox. What he said might have depended upon what facet of his thinking you engaged with.

    One of the things I remember is reading something about macro vs micro perspectives. If macro is about aggregation then it would be neither here nor there, perhaps, how the wearing out of any one piece of capital might happen.

    If one were, on the other hand, to engage with Keynes sense of uncertainty, then perhaps he'd look less at unintended consequences (perhaps this idea is misapplied in the case of Bastiat's boy) because the accident was not intended. What one can say about an accident is that it belongs to the realms of uncertainty - and that certainly was an interest of Keynes.

    Perhaps, again, government spending at a time of debt deflation belongs to Keynes' macro perspective. I doubt if he'd have any problem with strictures about waste such as those you point to.

    One of the things he was worried about, however, according to a biography I read, was fiddling whilst Rome burned - he apparently thought that Roosevelt needed to get on with reflating the US economy and that did mean spending a lot of money rapidly.

    Saint Keynes may well now play the harp, but I doubt if he'd give you an easy ride over what you impute to him.



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