The Broken Windows of Chelyabinsk

Early Friday morning a meteor screamed from the sky, creating a jagged contrail and exploding over a city in Russia’s Ural mountains. Several dashboard cameras captured the amazing descent, while handheld cams recorded the jarring boom that seemed to set off every car alarm in central Asia.

The footage taught me three important facts:

  1. There are car alarms in central Asia.
  2. Russian drivers listen to terrible music.
  3. 2013 is the dawning of the Golden Age of Russian Glaziery.

A small army of workers set to work Saturday to replace the estimated 50 acres of windows shattered by the shock wave from a meteor that exploded over Russia’s Chelyabinsk region.

The astonishing Friday morning event blew out windows in more than 4,000 buildings in the region, mostly in the capital city of the same name and injured some 1,200 people, largely with cuts from the flying glass.

Thankfully, the injuries seem minor. But the good news is that all this damage needs to be fixed, right? Not only does this mean big bucks for window makers from Yekaterinburg to Magnitogorsk, think of all the money street sweepers, construction workers and the local Home Depot will rake in. That flaming meteor literally created a boom economy.

After all, one of President Obama’s favorite economists is Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman who often praises economic stimulus through destruction. He thought the Japanese tsunami was pretty awesome, moneywise:

I guess we have to talk about the economic impact of the Fukushima nightmare… Japan will clearly have to spend hundreds of billions on damage control and recovery, even as revenue falls thanks to the direct economic impact… And yes, this does mean that the nuclear catastrophe could end up being expansionary, if not for Japan then at least for the world as a whole.

He even liked 9-11, macroeconomically speaking:

Ghastly as it may seem to say this, the terror attack — like the original day of infamy, which brought an end to the Great Depression — could even do some economic good… Now, all of a sudden, we need some new office buildings… Second, the attack opens the door to some sensible recession-fighting measures… Now it seems that we will indeed get a quick burst of public spending, however tragic the reasons.

For liberals like Krugman, a weekly meteor/tsunami/attack would be the best economic engine this world has ever seen. Once, he even dreamed of the good times an alien invasion would bring to Planet Earth. But not so fast, comrade.

A long time ago, a French guy named Frédéric Bastiat (“Freddy B.” for short) wrote an argument that destroyed this “broken window fallacy.” In his famous essay “Ce Qu’on Voit et Ce Qu’on Ne Voit Pas” (I don’t know what it means either; probably something to do with cheese), he showed that destruction doesn’t actually benefit the economy:

[A] man’s son breaks a pane of glass, meaning the man will have to pay to replace it. The onlookers consider the situation and decide that the boy has actually done the community a service because his father will have to pay the glazier to replace the broken pane. The glazier will then presumably spend the extra money on something else, jump-starting the local economy.

The onlookers come to believe that breaking windows stimulates the economy, but Bastiat points out that by breaking the window, the man’s son has reduced his father’s disposable income, meaning his father will not be able purchase new shoes or some other luxury good. Thus, the broken window might help the glazier, but at the same time, it robs other industries and reduces the amount being spent on other goods. Moreover, replacing something that has already been purchased is a maintenance cost, rather than a purchase of truly new goods, and maintenance doesn’t stimulate production.

The only economic good to come from the Russian meteor would be a remedial course in basic common sense. Instead of looking for disasters to fix our economy, Krugman, Obama, et al., should stop the policy disasters they inflict on American consumers and job creators every single day. Then each of us can go about actually growing our stagnant economy instead of redistributing the dwindling dollars we already have.

Who knows? With the right motivation, maybe an enterprising young musician can finally sell some good tunes to all those Russian drivers.

Follow Jon on Twitter at @ExJon.