The Leaf-Blower Paradox and the Fundamental Fallacy of Obamanomics

Earlier this week President Obama articulated how he understands the concept of employment, explaining that, in his view of the universe, bureaucratic regulations are a good way to create jobs:

Obama Says ‘EPA regulations create jobs’
“When we put in place new common-sense rules to reduce air pollution, we create new jobs building and installing all sorts of pollution-control technology.”

Yes, seriously, he said that. The President of the United States said it.

Obama’s fundamental misapprehension of employment economics reminds me of an intriguing paradox I observed first-hand just a few months ago when I visited a relative who lived in a suburban tract:

Twice a week, my relative hired a “gardener” to clean up the front yard. I put “gardener” in quotes because this young hardworking immigrant didn’t actually know anything about plants or gardens; basically his only task was to get rid of the leaves that fell from the trees in front of the house. He achieved this very quickly and efficiently by using a gas-powered leaf-blower. Perhaps when he was first hired his technique was to blow all the leaves into a big pile which he would then load into his truck for removal. A few may have gone into the neighbors’ yards, but hey, they were out of my relative’s yard, so problem solved. I imagine that over time, as he got hired by more and more people in the tract due to his low rates, he worked quicker and quicker and sloppier and sloppier, until the day I observed him, when he no longer even made a pretense of gathering the leaves into a pile; instead, he just blew them all into the neighbors’ yards, and then hopped into his truck and drove off to his next client. At three or four yards per hour, he was (metaphorically at least) raking it in.

But here’s where the paradox begins. The neighbors would come back from their jobs at the end of the day, and see all the leaves on their lawns, and they’d call up their own gardeners who would proceed to do the exact same thing in reverse — blow all the same leaves back into my relative’s and adjacent neighbors’ yards. This cycle would go on across the entire tract, because the same leaf-shedding trees had been planted along every street: everyone would hire gardeners to blow the leaves back and forth from yard to yard. At the end of each week, exactly nothing had been achieved: all the leaves were back where they started. And then the cycle would begin again.

A normal person would look at this situation and say, “What a monumental waste of effort. So much human labor for no purpose whatsoever; after all those man-hours, nothing has changed. All the leaves are back in their original positions.”

Obama would look at this same situation and say, “How can you claim that nothing was achieved? Forty-seven gardeners are now fully employed!

But I look at it and see what the radical theorists see: It’s not true at all that nothing has changed. Maybe the leaves are all in their original positions, but a great deal of money has been transferred from the middle-class homeowners to the immigrant gardeners.

If you think that “economic redistribution” from the middle-class to the “working poor” is desirable, then you see the Leaf-Blower Paradox not as a paradox at all but as a neat mechanism for extracting money from the more-well-off and giving it to the less-well-off.

But then the question arises: Why bother with the leaves at all? A simpler way to achieve the same thing would be for the “gardeners” to just drive very slowly through the neighborhood and each homeowner would toss $20 bills in the backs of their pickups trucks. The end result would be exactly the same.

Yet even this ludicrous scenario is not satisfactory for the true radicals. Why even bother with the pickup trucks? The Obamas of this world can (and do) produce the same result by instituting a tax — let’s call it the “Unemployed Gardener Tax” — and utilize the government as a middleman to transfer money from the employed to the unemployed. The gardeners can just sit at home watching TV all day, while the IRS collects extra taxes from the middle-class workers and doles it out as benefits to the would-be gardeners.

In fact, we can just drop the “Unemployed Gardener” part and just call it “Taxes” and — voilà! — we have Obama’s understanding of economics. In his view, the role of government is to transfer funds from the wealthy to the poor. And don’t imagine that this is just for the purpose of helping the poor; rather, the main purpose is to punish the wealthy, for the crime of, well, being wealthy.

Some mainstream economists have in the past argued in favor of the Leaf-Blower Paradox as a valid way to stimulate the economy. FDR and his advisors famously created millions of low-level government-financed manual labor jobs in the mid-1930s as a way to “put America back to work” during the Depression; while these “Civilian Conservation Corps” and similar jobs weren’t quite as useless as blowing leaves in circles, they were a sort of inefficient busywork whose main goal was not to get anything essential done but rather to get food in the belly of millions of unemployed Americans, and to get the money flowing in the economy again.

Historians still argue whether FDR’s policies shortened or lengthened the Depression, but Obamanomics makes FDR’s busywork schemes look brilliant by comparison.

In descending order:

• FDR redistributed money to the poor by using the government as an inefficient middleman. But under his system at least something positive got achieved — roads were built, parks improved — however non-essential they may have been.

• The Leaf-Blower Paradox also redistributes money to the poor, but is one step down; instead of inefficiently achieving non-essential goals, the leaf-blowers collectively produce nothing whatsoever.

• And then we have Obama, who takes us down to the absolute lowest level of counter-productiveness: He proposes that we “create jobs” by employing people to prevent the creation of jobs. Hiring people to implement economy-destroying EPA regulations — and then touting this dubious strategy as a way to “create jobs” — is the equivalent of hiring thousands of men to drive steamrollers over America’s farmlands. Not only have we lowered unemployment by creating thousands of new Steamroller Driver positions, but we’ve created more jobs in the agricultural sector as well, since the farmers now have to hire workers to re-plant all their crops!

In my admittedly primitive way of visualizing economics, there are two basic kinds of jobs: The first kind, which I call “productive jobs,” involve the creation of new things: manufacturing, inventing, designing, building, extracting raw materials, and so on. The second kind, which I call “maintenance jobs,” involve preserving a pleasant and safe civilizational environment: policing, service jobs, cleaning, health care, and so forth. These “maintenance jobs” are less glamorous but they are just as essential to the economy, because they create and maintain a status quo in which productiveness can be achieved.

Yet Obama and his crack team of economists have now dreamt up a third kind of job: The destructive job. Except Obama is more subtle than hiring Steamroller Drivers. No, instead, his destructive employment program involves the hiring of bureaucrats to stifle and crush entrepreneurialism and the free market; technicians to install machinery which makes doing business more difficult and expensive; IRS agents to squeeze more and more money from the dwindling number of productive Americans; and public servants whose job is to remove as many people as they can from the employment market by enslaving them to addictive lifelong entitlements like Food Stamps and unending unemployment benefits.

As always when it comes to discussing Obama and his economic policies, the question inevitably comes down to this: Is he trying to destroy the economy on purpose, or is it just an accidental side-effect of his well-intentioned ignorance?

I always try to abide by the aphorism “Never attribute to malice what can be more easily explained by stupidity,” but in Obama’s case his long history of “community organizing” and lifetime of devotion to redistributionist “economic justice” can only lead me to conclude that malice — or perhaps the cynical politics of envy — are behind his ruinous policies.