Your House Does Not Need a New Roof at My Expense

The moral and economic issues raised by government flood insurance ought to be obvious.

Pardon the pun, but I would like to discuss the subject of “sunk costs” in the context of hurricane-induced flooding.  Here’s the background, from a page one Wall Street Journal article on September 16, “Repeated Claims Flood Insurance Program”:

Brian Harmon had just finished spending over $300,000 to fix his home in Kingwood, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey sent floodwaters “completely over the roof.”

The six-bedroom house, which has an indoor swimming pool, sits along the San Jacinto River. It has flooded 22 times since 1979, making it one of the most flood-damaged properties in the country.

Government records show that between 1979 and 2015 the federal flood insurance program paid out more than $1.8 million to rebuild the house—a property that Mr Harmon figured was worth $600,000 to $800,000 before Harvey hit late last month.

“It’s my investment,” the 49-year old said this summer, before the hurricane. “I can’t just throw it away.”

On a house worth maybe $800,000, the government expended a total of $1.8 million—spread over as many as 22 occasions. What Mr. Harmon has personally spent (to build or buy, and later to improve or fix the house) is not stated, other than the $300,000 for recent hurricane repairs. It’s conceivable that this one single-family structure has sucked up a sum equivalent to five times its value, or more. And since it’s flooded 22 times in 36 years, it’s probably not done sucking.

“Loss aversion,” is the uneasy feeling people often have about wasting something they’ve invested in.

Mr. Harmon says he “can’t just throw it away” but I as a taxpayer sure wish he would.

Loss Aversion

The moral and economic issues raised by government flood insurance ought to be obvious. Since its creation by Congress in 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has lost money every year—about $25 billion to date, with this year’s deficit in excess of a billion.

Mr. Harmon’s reluctance to give up on his house seems motivated by what economists call “loss aversion,” the uneasy feeling people often have about wasting something they’ve invested in.

You buy a ticket to a movie but at the last minute a friend invites you to a sumptuous dinner at your favorite restaurant. That would be an easy decision if you hadn’t already bought the theater ticket; you could always see the film next week. But darn it, you paid for it and if you don’t go, it’ll be wasted. You may still accept your friend’s invitation, but with a tinge of regret. (To lessen that regret, you might pass the ticket on to someone else).

Nonetheless, economists caution us to recognize that a cost you’ve incurred in the past and which is unrecoverable is, in a word, “sunk.” The sooner you can put a sunk cost behind you—perhaps learn from it but otherwise forget about it—the better your future decisions will be.

Many times I’ve caught myself allowing a sense of loss aversion to overwhelm my knowledge of sunk costs. Here’s an example I shared often with students when I taught at Northwood University: I once bought a half gallon of butter pecan ice cream on sale for a mere 99 cents. “Such a deal!” I thought. When I opened it at home, scoop in hand, I discovered it was almost all ice cream (lousy to the taste, no less) and virtually no pecans! I suppose I could have angrily returned it to the store for a refund (minus the two dollars in gasoline it would have taken to get there), but I’m an easygoing chap. I just stuck the whole thing in my tiny freezer. For weeks thereafter as I tried to make room for other things, I would jam that half gallon of bad ice cream into a different corner.

Fixating on sunk costs is a major reason why a lot of small investors stay small.

Then it hit me. I’m never going to eat that stuff! It’s just taking up room I could use for something better. That 99 cents ain’t comin’ back. What am I keeping this junk for? Pleased that I was finally allowing my economics knowledge to inform me, I tossed that bad investment into the garbage can.

Opportunity Cost

As the author of this article explains, another example of this “sunk cost fallacy” would be to assume, “I might as well continue dating someone bad for me because I’ve already invested so much in them.”

Fixating on sunk costs is a major reason why a lot of small investors stay small. They can’t bring themselves to admit a mistake when the market moves against them. Rather than cut their losses short and move on, they hang on. Loss aversion then becomes loss accumulation.

Obviously, some people are quicker than others to learn from the errors arising from their loss aversion and the sunk cost fallacy. But one general lesson proves itself time and again—if it’s your own investment you’re playing with, and losses associated with it are all internalized (that is, it’s you who pays them), you tend to learn sooner rather than later. Your behavior changes as a result, so that you act less to “avoid” past losses and more to avoid future ones—the ones that are actually avoidable.

Don’t let a past, unrecoverable cost hobble your future decision-making or forgo a better opportunity.

In the case of Mr. Harmon and his flood-prone home, his endless commitment seems akin to forgoing the better invitation to go instead to an inferior movie, or stuffing the lousy ice cream back in the freezer, or getting engaged to a bad fit because of all the gifts and dinners he previously bought her. So why does he do it? Because his sunk costs are only partially internalized; most of them are paid by other parties (taxpayers). From his vantage point, his decision to throw your good money after his bad money doesn’t seem nearly as irrational as it might to you and me.

There’s another concept of cost that’s being overlooked in the Harmon example—opportunity cost. If the federal flood insurance program hadn’t given Mr. Harmon $1.8 million for his house, what might those from whom it was taken spend that money on? Perhaps three or four houses. Or a whole lot of things, big and small, according to the personal choices of those very people who earned the money in the first place. That unrealized cornucopia is what Frederic Bastiat referred to as “that which is not seen.”

Lots of lessons here, some very obvious and others more hidden or implied: Don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t let a past, unrecoverable cost hobble your future decision-making or forgo a better opportunity.

Failure to internalize sunk costs results in a waste of resources by short-circuiting market signals and creating the wrong incentives. (Unless you live in an infinitely bountiful Garden of Eden, this latter point should concern you.)

So now that we’ve learned these lessons, tell me which of the following proposals makes the most sense:

  1. Keep the federal flood insurance program in place. We’ve invested in it and can’t afford to kiss off those billions we’ve already spent.
  2. Kill the federal flood insurance program (or at least price it so that those who build in flood-prone areas pay the full costs of it). Anything less is just a welfare program, not insurance.

I think you know my druthers.

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