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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.