The warm winter, virtually without snow, provides a lesson in incomplete thinking about economics.

The Star Tribune recently published a story about the economic impact of the season: “Minnesota businesses are seeing red ink in brown winter.” It then quotes, as evidence, people with businesses that clear driveways of snow, remove ice dams from buildings, and sell cross-country ski equipment. As someone who enjoys the snow, I sympathize with ski hills, whose businesses suffer even if they have plenty of snow for downhill skiing and snowboarding.

But the Star-Tribune article omits some important perspective. What about the benefits of little snowfall? There are fewer weather-related auto accidents. Thirty-minute commutes have not ballooned to two-hour drives. People who don’t pay for snow- and ice-removal services can redirect that money to buy meals out, clothing, electronic gadgets, etc., providing an economic boost to people in those industries. Alternately, they can save money, which, through investments, can enhance economic growth.

In other words, you’ve got to look beyond the obvious considerations. Would that we do this in economic policy. That’s┬áthe major point of the classic book, Economics in One Lesson. It’s a book-length illustration of the concept of “opportunity costs.” Unfortunately, opportunity costs are too often ignored when government spending is concerned. Solar power? Woo hoo! Let’s sink a billion into a company that can make it happen! (Oops! It’s gone bankrupt!) Bailout the United Auto Workers? Sure! Of course, those billions add to the national debt, which represents claims on the economy’s future earnings. Pay for the health care of everyone over 65? Why not, other than the fact that the unfunded liabilities of Medicare are somewhere in the ballpark of $75 trillion–five times the size of the U.S. economy.

If you depend on snowplowing for a substantial part of your income, well, it’s going to be hard to be you this winter. I hope you can adjust without too much trouble. But more importantly, I hope that the rest of us apply the lesson of opportunity costs to government spending.