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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Destroying Value

In Cleveland and other American cities homes are being demolished because five years after the housing bust there is nothing better to do with them. Therein lies a lesson in Austrian business cycle theory.

In a world of uncertainty, waste—the destruction of value—is inevitable. Human action, which aims to replace inferior circumstances with superior circumstances, often involves laboring to transform scarce resources from a less useful form to a more useful form. For example, I transform money earned by my labor into raw beef (by using time and gasoline to drive to the supermarket and engaging in exchange), then I transform the raw beef into a medium-well hamburger through the time-consuming process of cooking. If after I eat the hamburger I wish I had done something else with the money and time (say, bought a chicken), I will regret my course of action and feel I’d wasted both.

We have all devoted time and resources to some project that we later realized was the wrong project. That’s the price of imperfect knowledge, which plagues all human beings. If we’re lucky some of the resources we used might be salvageable and put to other purposes, but the time, effort, and other resources are gone.

The same thing of course occurs in commercial production. An entrepreneur buys inputs and hires labor, thinking the finished product will bring a price that covers costs and yields a competitive return—only to find that people don’t want the product, or not badly enough to pay the anticipated price. The loss represents the destruction of value: The value of the inputs before the transformation took place turned out to be greater than the value of the finished product.

As I say, this happens because our knowledge is imperfect. It’s too bad, but perhaps not a tragedy—just a fact of life we learn to live with and minimize. The tragedy occurs when government intervention distorts price signals and induces people en masse unwittingly to make value-destroying plans. That’s part of the story told by the Austrian theory of the business cycle. In the present economic case the Federal Reserve’s low-interest-rate policy in the early 2000s and several federal agencies’ decade-long easy-housing policies induced builders to produce too many houses relative to what the demand would have been without those unsustainable policies. The result was the infamous housing boom and inevitable bust. With housing prices apparently on an unstoppable upward trajectory, and government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—not to mention too-big-to-be-allowed-to-fail banks—willing to buy lenders’ mortgages no matter how shaky, builders and buyers were found in great abundance. Buying more house than one could afford seemed smart when one could get a low teaser rate on an adjustable-rate mortgage for a low-to-no-down-payment home and expect its price to rise significantly in six months. When the higher rate kicked in, one could refinance or sell and walk off with the equity.

But when interest rates rose, the bubble burst, and demand plummeted, this smart scheme turned sour. Houses stood unsold, and many people couldn’t pay their mortgages, refinance, or sell at a profit. Foreclosures skyrocketed and the multitude with underwater homes simply disappeared, leaving banks holding a slew of vacant houses that cost money in taxes, code violations, and so on.

As a result, banks now would rather donate the properties to government-created nonprofit land banks and pay for the demolition than hold them and hope for future sales. This is happening in Cleveland, and the Washington Post reported that similar programs were being discussed elsewhere.

How does this relate to the waste identified by the Austrian business-cycle theory? To the extent the homes were vacated and allowed to deteriorate because of the process described above, the demolitions represent destruction of value attributable to government. In the absence of the unsustainable bubble-inflating policies, some of those houses wouldn’t have been built.

In the case of older homes, fewer newly built houses would have competed with them in the real estate market. They would still be occupied and therefore would have been maintained. (There would have been no Great Recession and high unemployment.) Demolition would not have been an attractive alternative.

The tragedy is that because of government policy, demolition is the most attractive alternative. Think of the resources and labor—now seen to have been squandered—that went into making each house. Imagine what products might have been created instead. It’s worse than that: Products always summon complementary products. A housing boom stimulates the production of related shopping centers, office parks, and myriad smaller facilities and products. The resources required to make those things also would have gone elsewhere. Now all those resources, along with much labor and time, are gone because people in government thought they knew how to plan the housing market.

* * *

Georgia and Alabama have joined Arizona in enacting a tough law directed at undocumented immigrants. As Scott Beaulier, Darrick Luke, and Daniel Smith demonstrate, this is already damaging their economies.

Andrew Morriss has been to Graceland, where he found that the lap of luxury in which its fabulously wealthy late resident lived doesn’t look so luxurious today.

Conventional wisdom holds that without the welfare state, the poor would be in dire straits. But what if, as Gary Chartier suggests, government is responsible for the poor’s condition in the first place?

If public policy created the housing bubble, the bursting of which has caused so much misery, can it really be a good idea to reinflate the bubble? Richard Fulmer says that according to political logic, the answer is yes.

The more government controls the curriculum, the more inimical schooling becomes to education. Peter McAllister explains.

The eurozone is in trouble, leading Robert Murphy to explore the possibility that it was a colossal mistake in the first place.

Regulation at the national level gets the lion’s share of attention from market advocates. But let’s not overlook the planning mentality more locally. Sam Staley surveys the taxicab industry.

Here’s what our columnists have whipped up: Donald Boudreaux audits the economics textbook writers. Robert Higgs explains why there’s so little investment. John Stossel brands government a job destroyer. Charles Baird looks at the latest outrage against free speech. And Tyler Watts, bombarded with claims that we couldn’t live without FEMA, responds, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books on libertarianism, the economy, socialism, and the threat to freedom occupy our reviewers.

—Sheldon Richman

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  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.