How The Salvation Army Commits The Broken Window Fallacy

Every year during the Christmas season, the Salvation Army sends out bell ringers to collect donations as part of its annual Red Kettle campaign. These bell ringers stand in public places or at entrances to large shopping centers and ring handbells loudly and incessantly, stopping only momentarily to express gratitude when someone makes a donation. This business model for charitable donations appears to work (otherwise it would be discontinued), and the funds are used for noble purposes, but there is a problem with the Red Kettle campaign. It focuses on what is seen and ignores what is unseen, which is one of the most persistent errors in economics. It was pointed out by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, and has become known as the glazier’s fallacy or the broken window fallacy.

The broken window fallacy gets its name from the parable of the broken window, which was discussed by Frédéric Bastiat in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit, et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That which is seen, and that which is not seen) to illustrate why destruction, and the resources and effort required to rebuild after destruction, is not a net-benefit to society. The parable demonstrates that the modern economic concept of opportunity cost, along with unintended consequences, has an effect on economic activity that is frequently ignored.

Bastiat told a parable about a shopkeeper’s son who threw a rock through the window of the family business. The glazier then gets the business of repairing the window, and then he can buy some clothes from the tailor, who can then buy bread from the baker, and so on. This is what is seen. But if the shopkeeper did not have to fix his window, he could spend his money on something else. Perhaps he could buy some clothes from the tailor, who can then buy bread from the baker, and so on. This is what is unseen.

Bastiat, along with Austrian School economists, often used this story figuratively, with the glazier representing special interests and the boy who breaks the window representing government intervention. But this case requires a different interpretation. In this case, what is seen is that people donate when the Salvation Army workers set up a red kettle and ring their bells. What the Salvation Army workers either ignore or fail to realize is that their bells can be off-putting to people who are annoyed by ringing noises, repetitive noises, loud noises, or some combination of the aforementioned. Such people will be disincentivized from giving donations, but because there is no way to count a non-donation, this cost to their organization is hidden. To simply dismiss this effect in favor of giving attention only to the donations that are given is to commit the broken window fallacy.

The Federal Reserve Turns 100: A Timeline Of Economic Mismanagement

On Dec. 23, 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, which created a central banking system in the United States, of which all nationally chartered banks were forced to become members. (State banks had a choice, but nonmember banks had to keep deposit accounts with member banks, and so were under control of the Federal Reserve as well.) The Federal Reserve Note, the current legal tender, was also created at this time. It has now been a full century since this institution was created, so let us reflect upon its various (mis)deeds. This a timeline of some of the major events involving the Federal Reserve over the past century:

1913: The Federal Reserve is created.

1914: Benjamin Strong becomes the first Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which was the most powerful position in the Federal Reserve until the Banking Acts of 1933 and 1935. Charles S. Hamlin becomes the first Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1916: Prices have increased over 10 percent since 1913. William P. G. Harding becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1918: World War I drives prices higher. Prices have increased over 50 percent since 1913.

c. 1919: The money supply has doubled since 1913. This is an inflation rate of 100 percent in a six-year period by the correct definition of inflation.

1920: Prices have doubled since 1913. This is an inflation rate of 100 percent in a seven-year period by the commonly used (but incorrect) definition of inflation. This, along with the realignment to a peacetime economy following World War I, helps to cause the Depression of 1920-21.

1921: Following the Depression of 1920-21, the Fed continues inflationary policies to pay off war debts and help the Bank of England maintain a phony gold standard. This consequences of this were partly to blame for the Great Depression.

1922: Prices fall, but have still increased 70 percent since 1913. Prices remain near this level for the rest of the decade. Daniel Crissinger becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1927: Roy A. Young becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1928: Benjamin Strong dies in office. George L. Harrison becomes President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

c. 1929: The money supply has tripled since 1913.

1930: Eugene Meyer becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1930-33: Prices fall again, and continue falling until reaching a low of 31 percent above 1913 levels in 1933. Prices remain near this level for the rest of the decade.

1933: Eugene R. Black becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve. President Franklin Roosevelt orders that gold owned by American citizens be confiscated and replaced with Federal Reserve Notes.

1933-35: The Banking Acts create the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, insuring individual deposits and thereby creating a moral hazard for banks, which no longer needed to be as careful with their assets.

1934: Marriner S. Eccles becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1938: The Federal Reserve panics at the potential for inflation, and doubles the minimum reserve requirements. This sends the economy into a tailspin of credit liquidation.

c. 1941: The money supply has quadrupled since 1913.

1941-45: World War II drives prices higher, from 41.4 percent above 1913 levels in 1941 to 81.8 percent above 1913 levels in 1945.

c. 1943: The money supply has quintupled since 1913.

1947: Prices are again more than double those of 1913.

1948: Thomas B. McCabe becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1951: William McChesney Martin becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

c. 1952: The money supply has increased ten-fold since 1913.

1960: The money supply has increased twenty-fold since 1913.

1961: Prices have tripled since 1913.

1966: The money supply has increased thirty-fold since 1913.

1970: Arthur F. Burns becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The money supply has increased forty-fold since 1913.

1971: Prices have quadrupled since 1913. President Nixon ends the Bretton Woods system, closing the gold window. From this point onward, the Federal Reserve is able to create currency at a much greater pace, leading to much faster inflation and price increases.

1972: The money supply has increased fifty-fold since 1913.

1975: Prices have quintupled since 1913.

1978: G. William Miller becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1979: Paul Volcker becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1980: The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act gives the Federal Reserve more control over non-member banks. The money supply has increased one hundred-fold since 1913.

1983: Prices have increased ten-fold since 1913.

1987: Alan Greenspan becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

1990: The money supply has increased two hundred-fold since 1913.

1995: Prices have increased fifteen-fold since 1913.

2000: The money supply has increased three hundred-fold since 1913.

2004: The Federal Reserve lowers its interest rate target, leading to malinvestments in housing that create a bubble. The money supply has increased four hundred-fold since 1913.

2006: Ben Bernanke becomes Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Prices have increased twenty-fold since 1913. The housing bubble peaks.

2008: The money supply has increased five hundred-fold since 1913. The housing bubble bursts. The Federal Reserve begins quantitative easing in an attempt to mitigate the financial crisis of 2007-08.

2009-2011: Bloomberg L.P. sues the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System for disclosure of information about banks and other financial institutions that had borrowed from the Federal Reserve discount window during the United States housing bubble and ensuing financial crisis. The Fed was forced to release the information, which showed that the Fed had made as much as $1.2 trillion available to banks and other companies in the form of emergency loans between 2007 and 2010.

2013: Over the past century, the US dollar has lost 95.6 percent of its purchasing power. On average, an item that cost $100 in 1913 costs $2,354.23 at present. Also, while there were approximately $16 billion in circulation in 1913, this has expanded to $10.9718 trillion, an increase of over 68,000 percent.

Book review: It’s a Jetsons World

It’s a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes is a collection of essays about the wonders of the free market and the failures of statism written by Jeffrey Tucker.

Mr. Tucker begins by comparing the current world situation to that of the Jetsons cartoon, and finding that despite some differences in the available technologies, the only real difference is that we also have a leviathan state which runs counter to the advancements brought about by voluntary exchange. The rest of the first section, titled “Private Miracles,” explores the dichotomy between voluntary and coercive interactions through various situations and conundrums, from grocery store checkouts to auto-defrosting refrigerators to internet connections.

The second section of the book, “Free Association, Peace, and Plenty,” explores the benefits of voluntary interactions, some of which we overlook and/or take for granted. Several of the examples also make the point that central planning through government coercion could not produce such benefits, as Mises once proposed with the economic calculation problem.

“Work for Free,” the third section of the book, speaks mostly about the functionality of the free market and how it can adapt to various situations and problems. It is here that Tucker’s wisdom truly shows, for he is able to debunk with counterexamples the claims of anti-free market theorists that voluntary exchange has no way of dealing with heartless people, criminals, or uncertainties in the medium of exchange. He also shows through the examples of the decline of the U.S. piano industry and the relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake that economic interventions tend to hurt the very people they are supposed to help.

The next section of the book, “Can Ideas Be Owned?,” is a collection of arguments against patents, copyrights, and other forms of “intellectual property.” Tucker shows through examples of agricultural and pharmaceutical patents, as well as book, music, and movie copyrights, that monopolizing knowledge serves to restrict knowledge and hold back progress. A large part of the section is a favorable book review of Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David Levine.

Tucker concludes with a section on “Public Crimes,” which delves into the true nature of government laws and regulations and their ill effects on civilization. He also turns his attention to the difference between capitalism and corporatism, as well as the coercive nature of government-run military defense. The last subsection returns to the Jetsons theme, discussing a particular episode that presents a credible case for how even the remains of the state that may still be with us in the future will be relatively harmless and even comical compared to the monstrosities of the present day.

While the book does not go into extensive detail on free market economic theories, it presents a message of liberty in a fun, lighthearted manner that is ideal for a person curious about libertarian ideas.

Rating: 5/5