Posts Tagged ‘Environmentalism’

Since it’s basically a way of protecting property rights, environmental protection is a legitimate function of government.

That’s the easy part. It gets a lot harder when calculating costs and benefits.

Everyone surely agrees that a chemical company shouldn’t be able to dump toxic waste in a town’s reservoir because the costs would out-weigh the benefits. And presumably everyone also would concur that banning private automobiles would be crazy because this would be another example of costs being greater than benefits.

But there’s a lot of stuff in between those extreme examples where agreement is elusive.

And I’ll admit my bias. I don’t trust the modern environmental movement, particularly the climate alarmists. There are just too many cases where green advocates act like their real goal is statism.

Moreover, the hypocrisy of some environmental dilettantes is downright staggering.

And they also seem to be waging a regulatory war on modern life.

I’m giving all this background to create context for an article I want to discuss.

John Tierney, a columnist for the New York Times. has a piece that debunks recycling. He starts by looking back 20 years.

As you sort everything into the right bins, you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time? In 1996, …I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that…the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly.

So what’s happened over the years? Has recycling become more feasible and rational?

Not exactly. From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s a scam. It simply doesn’t make sense.

…when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all. Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. …the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. …The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. …“Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected…”

Tierney specifically addresses the issue of greenhouse gasses.

…well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits. …Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. …if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.

A traditional argument for mandated recycling is that landfill space is vanishing.

But that’s always been bunk.

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. And that tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland… Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells).

Moreover, incinerators are another practical option.

Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.

The bottom line is that recycling is an expensive feel-good gesture by guilt-ridden rich people.

In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions. …why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it? Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint.

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether rich people should feel guilty about their resource consumption.

But I definitely get agitated when they try to atone for their guilt by foisting costly and ineffective policies on other people.

P.S. That’s why I consider myself to be pro-environment while also being a skeptic of environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

P.P.S. Some environmental policies lead to disgusting examples of government thuggery (some of which, fortunately, are not successful).

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When the International Monetary Fund endorsed a giant energy tax on the American economy, I was not happy.

And not just because the tax hike would have been more than $5,000 for an average family of four. I also was agitated by the hypocrisy.

…these bureaucrats get extremely generous tax-free salaries, yet they apparently don’t see any hypocrisy in recommending huge tax increases for the peasantry.

And when the similarly un-taxed bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development added their support for a big tax hike on energy, I was irked for that reason, and also because they wanted to use much of the money to make government bigger.

…the OECD is basically saying is that an energy tax will be very painful for the poor. But rather than conclude that the tax is therefore undesirable, they instead are urging that the new tax be accompanied by new spending.

Moreover, I also criticized Barack Obama’s former top economist for endorsing a big energy tax.

So does this mean I’m against energy taxation? The answer is yes, but with a big caveat. I want the government to collect tax (hopefully a small amount because we have a small government) in the way that does the least amount of damage to the American economy.

So while my instinct is to oppose any proposed tax, I’m theoretically open to the notion that we can make the tax system less destructive by replacing very bad taxes with taxes that aren’t as bad.

And that’s what some pro-market economists want to do with an energy tax. Here’s some of what Greg Mankiw wrote for the New York Times.

Policy wonks like me have long argued that the best way to curb carbon emissions is to put a price on carbon. The cap-and-trade system President Obama advocates is one way to do that. A more direct and less bureaucratic way is to tax carbon. When polled, economists overwhelmingly support the idea. …It encourages people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, form car pools with their neighbors, use more public transportation, live closer to work and turn down their thermostats. A regulatory system that tried to achieve all this would be heavy-handed and less effective.

In other words, Mankiw argues that not only could the revenue be used to finance equal-sized tax cuts, but the carbon tax would end any need for destructive regulations.

Which creates a win-win scenario, he argues, citing British Columbia as an example.

Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina, heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University A recent winner of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which is given to public officials, he has been pushing for climate change solutions that are consistent with free enterprise and limited government. Environmentalists in the United States would do well to look north at the successes achieved in a Canadian province. In 2008, British Columbia introduced a revenue-neutral carbon tax similar to that being proposed for Washington. The results of the policy have been what advocates promised. The use of fossil fuels in British Columbia has fallen compared with the rest of Canada. But economic growth has not suffered.

Professor Mankiw makes some reasonable points, but now let’s get the other side.

Three of my colleagues at the Cato Institute have just produced a working paper on carbon taxation. They directly address the claims of pro-market advocates of energy taxation.

Within conservative and libertarian circles, a small but vocal group of academics, analysts, and political officials are claiming that a revenue‐neutral carbon tax swap could even deliver a “double dividend”—meaning that the conventional economy would be spurred in addition to any climate benefits. The present study details several serious problems with these claims.

Much of the debate revolves around scientific issues such as the potential long-run harm of carbon emissions.

In the policy debate over carbon taxes, a key concept is the “social cost of carbon,” which is defined as the (present value of) future damages caused by emitting an additional ton of carbon dioxide. …the computer simulations used to generate SCC estimates are largely arbitrary, with plausible adjustments in parameters—such as the discount rate—causing the estimate to shift by at least an order of magnitude. Indeed, MIT economist Robert Pindyck considers the whole process so fraught with unwarranted precision that he has called such computer simulations “close to useless” for guiding policy.

Models about climate change also play a big role.

Additionally, we show some rather stark evidence that the family of models used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are experiencing a profound failure that greatly reduces their forecast utility.

As well as the use of cost-benefit analysis.

…the U.N.’s own report shows that aggressive emission cutbacks—even if achieved through an “efficient” carbon tax—would probably cause more harm than good.

I’m not overly competent to discuss the issues listed above.

But the debate also revolves around what happens with the revenue generated by a carbon tax. For instance, is it used to lower other taxes? Or does it get diverted to fund bigger government?

The Cato authors argue that carbon taxes can be just as damaging – and maybe even more damaging – than existing taxes on labor and capital. And they also fear that revenues from a carbon tax would be used to increase the burden of government spending.

…carbon taxes cause more economic damage than generic taxes on labor or capital, so that in general even a revenue‐ neutral carbon tax swap will probably reduce conventional GDP growth. (The driver of this result is that carbon taxes fall on narrower segments of the economy, and thus to raise a given amount of revenue require a higher tax rate.) Furthermore, in the real world at least some of the new carbon tax receipts would probably be devoted to higher spending (on “green investments”) and lump‐sum transfers to poorer citizens to help offset the impact of higher energy prices. Thus in practice the economic drag of a new carbon tax could be far worse than the idealized revenue‐ neutral simulations depict.

I have mixed feelings about the above passages.

On a per-dollar-raised basis, my gut instinct is that a carbon tax does less damage than revenue sources such as the corporate income tax. So you theoretically would get more growth with a revenue-neutral swap.

But my colleagues are probably right that a carbon tax is more damaging than other taxes, such as the payroll tax (which, after all, is a comparatively less-destructive flat tax on labor income).

Indeed, this is what we see in some of the evidence they cite in their study. You only get better economic performance if carbon tax revenue is used to lower the tax burden on capital.

In any event, the most persuasive argument against the carbon tax is that a big chunk of the new revenue would probably be used to make government even bigger. And this is why I argued back in June that supporters of limited government should reject the siren song of carbon taxation.

Last but not least, I should point out that the evidence from British Columbia is not very persuasive according to the authors of the Cato study.

…in British Columbia—touted as the world’s finest example of a carbon tax—the experience has been underwhelming. After an initial (but temporary) drop, the B.C. carbon tax has not yielded significant reductions in gasoline purchases, and it has arguably reduced the B.C. economy’s performance relative to the rest of Canada.

Now we’re back in an area where I’m unable to provide helpful commentary. Other than a one-time analysis of fiscal policy in Alberta, I’ve never delved into the economic performance and competitiveness of Canadian provinces, so I’ll resist the temptation to make any sweeping statements.

Returning to the big issue, my bottom line is that a carbon tax might be a worthwhile endeavor if Professor Mankiw somehow became economic czar and was allowed to impose policies that never could be altered.

In that scenario, I have confidence that we would get a pro-growth revenue-neutral swap. Which means the negative impact of a carbon tax would be more than offset by the pro-growth effect of eliminating or permanently reducing other taxes.

Unfortunately, we don’t have this scenario in the real world. Instead, I fear that well-meaning proponents of a carbon tax are unwittingly delivering a new source of revenue to a political class in Washington that wants to finance bigger government.

P.S. This is the same reason why I’m so strongly opposed to the value-added tax even though it theoretically doesn’t do as much damage – per dollar collected – as our onerous income tax. Simply stated, I don’t trust politicians to behave honorably if they get a new source of revenue.

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When writing about the burden of regulation, I often share big numbers about aggregate cost, job losses, time wasted, and foregone growth.

But I sometimes wonder if such data is effective in the battle for good policy.

Maybe it’s better, at least in some cases, to focus on regulations that affect quality of life for regular people. Lots of ordinary citizens, for instance, are irked that they’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, and inadequate washing machines because of regulatory silliness from Washington.

And it looks like we’ll now be forced to use dishwashers that don’t clean dishes thanks to proposed regulations that will reduce water use (which is in addition to a 2012 regulation that already restricted water use).

The Hill reports on the Nanny State’s latest salvo in the war against modern civilization.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers is accusing the Department of Energy (DOE) of a politically motivated drive to increase dishwasher efficiency standards, which are so bad that they would cause consumers to re-wash dishes, erasing any efficiency gains. Rob McAver, the group’s head lobbyist, said regulators are going too far and the new rules will allow only 3.1 gallons to be used to wash each load of dishes. …They then ran standard tests with food stuck to dishes. “They found some stuff that was pretty disgusting,” McAver said. …“The poor performance that would result would totally undercut and go backwards in terms of energy and water use, because of the need for running the dishwasher again, or pre-rinsing or hand-washing, which uses a lot of water,” he said.

Great, another bone-headed step by the government that will make life less enjoyable.

I’m already one of those people who rinse my dishes before putting them in the dishwasher because I hate the idea that they won’t be fully clean afterwards.

So I can only imagine how bad it will be if this absurd example of red tape is imposed and I have to buy a new dishwasher.

I guess I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that my current dishwasher doesn’t break down.

Especially since the rules make new dishwashers more expensive.

Ernest Istook, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, wrote in a Washington Times piece that complying with the 2012 rule, based on DOE estimates, added roughly $44 to the cost of each machine. “Now their 2015 proposal will add another $99 to the price tag, even by DOE’s own admission,” he wrote.

Julie Borowski has the right assessment. Her column for Freedom Works is from 2012, but it’s very appropriate still today.

Are you disappointed in every shower head that you purchase? Does your toilet have trouble flushing? Have you noticed that your dishes are still dirty after the dishwasher cycle is completed? …Some of us may be quick to blame the manufacturer of these home appliances. But the manufacturers are just abiding by the costly regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy.

What’s really frustrating is that these regulations reduce the quality of life without even reducing water usage.

…it has only led to people hacking their shower heads to remove the intrusion that is blocking water flow in order to have a more relaxing shower that actually gets them clean. There is no proof that the water restrictions have actually saved water because many people just end up taking longer showers than they otherwise would.

Amen. Every so often I wind up at a hotel with restricted-flow showerheads and it’s a hassle because I probably spend twice as long in the shower.

Not to mention problems government has created elsewhere in bathrooms.

…water restrictions are also the reason that our toilets have trouble flushing. Many of us have become accustomed to flushing the toilet multiple times before the toilet bowl is clear. The 1992 Energy Policy Act states that all toilets sold in the United States use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. These water restrictions are the reason why we have to use plungers far more often than we used to.

I won’t torment readers with a TMI moment, but I will say that I now routinely flush at the halfway point when seated on a toilet. And even that doesn’t necessarily preclude a third flush at the end of the process.

The only good news is that this gives me a daily reminder that government has far too much power to micro-manage our lives.

Speaking of excessive government, here’s another example of the regulatory state run amok.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the federal milk police? Well, now we’ll have the federal pizza police, as explained by The Manhattan Institute.

Pizza makers could face fines and prison time under a new Food and Drug Administration rule for failing to provide calorie counts for their billions of combinations of pizza orders. …FDA’s menu labeling rule will go into effect on December 1st, 2016… If a company does not perfectly comply with the mandate, food may be rendered “misbranded” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a violation that carries criminal penalties. Failure to comply with the regulation could lead to government seizure of food, a maximum $1,000 fine, and a one-year prison sentence. …Revising systems under strict compliance with the regulation’s guidelines is expected to cost Domino’s $1,600 to $4,700 per restaurant annually. In general, the rule is expected to cost businesses $537 million, losses that necessarily must be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

And I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that all this coercion and red tape will have no positive effect.

Several studies on the effectiveness of calorie displays suggest the mandate will have little to no effect on the public’s choices. In one study on menu-labeling in New York City, Brian Elbel, a professor at New York University, found that only 28 percent of people who saw calorie labels said that the information influenced their choices. There was no statistically significant change in calories purchased. In another study, Lisa Harnack of the University of Minnesota examined whether knowledge about calorie counts of menu items would influence how much a person ate, even if the information did not change ordering habits. A lab study revealed that, overall, consumers did not change how much they ate after receiving information about their food’s caloric content.

Which is why, when writing about this topic last year, I predicted “If this regulation is implemented, it will have zero measurable impact on American waistlines.

P.S. Keep in mind we already have the federal bagpipe police, the federal pond police, and the federal don’t-whistle-at-whales police.

P.P.S. As I repeatedly warn, if the answer is more government, someone’s asked a very silly question.

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Explaining why statists are wrong about policy is a necessary part of what I do, but it sometimes can get a bit predictable. So I’ve decided to periodically pick fights with people who generally are on the right side.

By the way, I’m definitely not talking about Republicans, who oftentimes are among the most worst people in Washington.

I’m talking about friendly fights with other policy wonks.

My first friendly fight featured my complaints about an anti-flat tax column by Reihan Salam of National Review, mostly because I think he got some economic analysis wrong even though I largely agreed with his political analysis.

My second friendly fight featured my grousing about the fiscal plan put forth by the American Enterprise Institute, which openly proposed that the tax burden should increase to enable a larger burden of government spending.

Time for a third fight. My former Cato colleague Jerry Taylor is now head of the Niskanen Center. He wrote a paper in March making “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax.” Here’s some of what he wrote.

…conservatives should say “yes” to a revenue-neutral carbon tax …so long as the tax displaces EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and eliminates a host of tax preferences provided to green energy producers. If federal and state governments are going to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, better that they do so at the least economic cost possible. A carbon tax…promises to do that by leaving the decision about where, when, and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to market actors (via price signals) rather than to regulators (via administrative orders). A carbon tax would also produce revenue that can be used to provide offsetting tax cuts. …Suggestions have been made to use those revenues to offset cuts in the corporate income tax, the capital gain s tax, personal income taxes, payroll taxes, and sales taxes. If the carbon tax is less economically harmful than the tax it displaces, a revenue neutral carbon tax is worth embracing even if we leave aside the environmental benefits. …Morris calculates that her carbon tax would bring in about $88 billion in the first year,rising to $200 billion a year after 20 years

Everything Jerry wrote is theoretically reasonable, particularly since he is proposing a carbon tax as a replacement for counterproductive regulation and he also says the tax revenue can be used to lower other tax burdens.

But theoretically reasonable is not the same as practical policy or good policy. What if politicians pull a bait and switch, imposing a carbon tax but then not following through on the deal?

Jerry addresses these concerns.

Many conservatives resist carbon taxes because they believe that increases in federal revenues will increase the size of government. But virtually every proposed carbon tax put on the political table includes offsetting tax cuts to ensure revenue neutrality. Revenue neutral carbon taxes will not increase the size of the federal treasury. …The true definition of government’s size is not how many dollars the treasury extracts from the economy. It is best measured by how many resources are reallocated as a consequence of government. To the extent that carbon taxes are more efficient than command-and-control regulation at achieving the aims of greenhouse gas emission constraint, a carbon tax would serve to decrease the size of government relative to the status quo.

Those are fair points, and I particularly agree that fiscal policy is an incomplete measure of the burden of government.

So Jerry is right that a particular regulation might be more damaging that a particular tax.

Jerry continues to address concerns on the right about a carbon tax.

Many conservatives have argued that no matter how compelling the case for a carbon tax might be, it will be rendered intolerable by the time it emerges from the legislature. Politics, not economics, will dictate the tax rate. Exceptions and favors for politically popular industries will litter the code. And despite promises to the contrary, the inefficient regulations will never die. Economist Tom Tietenberg of Colby College examined the literature pertaining to the 15 major pollution tax and fee programs instituted worldwide and found that while concerns about the translating economic theory into political practice are not baseless, they are overstated.

I find Jerry to be less persuasive on this front. I’m not sure foreign evidence tells us much, in part because almost all other nations have parliamentary forms of government where the party in power, by definition, exercises both executive and legislative control in a system of strong party discipline.

Our separation-of-powers system, by contrast, necessarily requires consensus among Senators, Representatives, and the White House, further complicated by the necessity of moving legislation through committees. All of this results in the kinds of compromises and horse trading that can take clean theoretical concepts and turn them into Byzantine reality.

Heck, just consider the internal revenue code, which has become a nightmare of complexity.

But that’s not my main concern with Jerry’s proposed carbon tax.

My real objection is that I have zero trust that Washington won’t use the new tax as a tool for expanding the size and cost of government.

This isn’t just idle speculation or misplaced paranoia. The crowd in Washington is salivating for a new source of revenue. The Wall Street Journal opines on this development, citing the soon-to-be leader of Senate Democrats.

Chuck Schumer is…already planning for 2017…predicting that the political class might join hands and pass a carbon tax. “…many of our Republican friends will say we’ve been starving the government for revenues,” Mr. Schumer told an environmental event on Capitol Hill according to the Politico website, “but many of them will not be for raising [income tax] rates.” So Republicans and Democrats will both be hunting for revenues and “you might get a compromise” over a new carbon tax, he added.

The editors at the WSJ are not sold on this idea, to put it mildly.

It’s amusing that Sen. Schumer thinks a federal government that spends nearly $4 trillion and 21% of national output a year is “starving” for anything. …Our view of a carbon tax is that it might be acceptable as part of a tax reform that eliminated—entirely—some current revenue source such as the payroll or corporate income tax. But we don’t expect to live long enough to see that day. A slippery compromise would trade a new carbon tax for a reduction in some tax rates, but the politicians would soon return to raising those rates again. The U.S. would be left with the current tax burden plus the new carbon tax—and a permanently larger government.

The folks at the WSJ hit the nail on the head. More spending is the most realistic outcome if politicians get a new tax, whether it’s an energy tax, a value-added tax, a wealth tax, or a financial transactions tax.

And Jerry actually confirms my fears. Just yesterday, he posted some comments on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial, and what he wrote perfectly captures why advocates of smaller government are so resistant to a carbon tax.

He went from advocating a revenue-neutral (and regulation-eliminating) carbon tax in March to now saying it’s okay to have a net increase in the tax burden!

…there is a very strong, conservative case for doing exactly what Sen. Schumer proposed this week (if the revenues are used to reduce the deficit, as Sen. Schumer implied, rather than to fund more spending).

And keep in mind that Sen. Schumer doubtlessly intends to spend every penny (and more) that is generated by this new tax, so the real-world outcome would be even worse.

By the way, Jerry then ventures into the world of fiscal policy, asserting that there’s no hope of fiscal restraint and that Republicans should simply figure out ways to increase the tax burden.

This may be unpopular with Republicans at the moment, but sooner or later, bills must be paid. And there’s no chance whatsoever that those bills are going to be paid by savings gained from budget cuts alone. If a carbon tax is not going to provide the necessary revenues, then what do Republicans propose as a source of revenue in its stead?

Wow, there’s a lot wrong in those three sentences.

But I’ll just focus on a few points.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just read what leftists have said they want to do with the money from a new energy tax.

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When writing about the Golden State, I generally focus on fiscal policy. After all, California is trying to become the France of America by imposing punitive tax rates and continuously expanding the burden of government spending.

And since this leads to the loss of jobs and competitiveness, California offers a helpful reminder that bad policy has consequences.

But let’s now look at another example of misguided policy in California. The state is suffering a drought, which obviously isn’t the fault of state lawmakers, but policies imposed by those lawmakers are turning the drought from a problem to a crisis.

The Wall Street Journal opines on the issue.

The liberals who run California have long purported that their green policies are a free (organic) lunch, but the bills are coming due. Lo, Governor Jerry Brown has mandated a 25% statewide reduction in water use. Consider this rationing a surcharge for decades of environmental excess. …During the last two winters amid the drought, regulators let more than 2.6 million acre-feet out into the bay. The reason: California lacked storage capacity north of the delta, and environmental rules restrict water pumping to reservoirs south. …no major water infrastructure project has been completed in California since the 1960s. Money is not the obstacle. Since 2000 voters have approved five bonds authorizing $22 billion in spending for water improvements. Environmental projects have been the biggest winners. …studies show that mandates and subsidies for low-flow appliances like California’s don’t work because people respond by changing their behavior (e.g., taking longer showers). Despite the diminishing returns, Mr. Brown has ordered more spending on water efficiency.

In other words, the government-run system for collecting and distributing water is suffering because of a failure to generate enough supply and because non-price mechanisms aren’t very effective at limiting demand.

So what would work?

The WSJ suggests market-based pricing.

And the good news is that it is a small part of the Governor’s new proposal.

The most proven strategy to reduce water consumption is market pricing with water rates increasing based on household use. …To his credit, the Governor has instructed the State Water Resources Control Board to develop pricing mechanisms… Not even Gov. Brown can make it rain, but he and other politicians can stop compounding the damage by putting water storage, transportation and market pricing above environmental obsessions.

By the way, it’s worth noting that market-based pricing is actually the most effective way of achieving the environmental goal of conservation.

So if you want more water for fish, make sure it’s priced appropriately.

To elaborate on this topic, Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, explains that subsidized water encourages overuse.

California’s problem is not that it doesn’t have enough water to support its population. Rather, the problem is that its population uses more water than it has to. And the reason people do this is that water in California is seriously underpriced… While the new emergency rules do include provisions for local utilities to raise rates, that would still leave water in the state ludicrously mispriced. …the average household in San Diego pays less than 80 cents a day for the 150 gallons of water it uses. …Artificially cheap water encourages people to install lush, green lawns that need lots of watering instead of native plants more appropriate to the local climate. It means they don’t even look for information about the water efficiency of their fixtures and appliances. They take long showers and let the tap run while they’re on the phone with Mom. In a thousand ways, it creates demand far in excess of supply.

Megan agrees with the WSJ that market-based prices are far more effective in controlling demand than non-market restrictions and mandates.

Having artificially goosed demand, the government then tries to curb it by mandating efficiency levels and outlawing water-hogging landscaping. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work nearly as well as pricing water properly, then letting people figure out how they want to conserve it.

And while it may be a challenge to figure out the “market rate” when water is being provided by a government monopoly, it’s safe to say that this rate is a lot higher than it is today.

…we could set some minimum amount of water that would be sold at a very cheap rate, with any excess charged at market rates to reflect the actual supply and the cost of providing it. This would be hugely unpopular with homeowners who have big lawns as well as with farmers.

There’s a semi-famous saying that “if you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of something, subsidize it.”

I don’t know if somebody famous uttered that phrase, or something like it, but the point is correct.

The bottom line is that subsidies encourage over-utilization, inefficiency, and insensitivity to price. That’s true for health care and higher education, just as it’s true for water.

Now let’s look at a video that helps illustrate the damaging impact of subsidies.

It’s not completely applicable because water isn’t sold by profit-making companies, but this video from Marginal Revolution explains how consumers will demand a much greater quantity of a product when the price is artificially low because of subsidies.

Indeed, the video even uses California water as an example.

P.S. The MRU videos are superb tutorials. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value and highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and they’re all worth a few minutes of your time.

P.P.S. Shifting from substance to California-specific humor, this Chuck Asay cartoon speculates on how future archaeologists will view California. This Michael Ramirez cartoon looks at the impact of the state’s class-warfare tax policy. And this joke about Texas, California, and a coyote is among my most-viewed blog posts.

P.P.P.S. Paul Krugman has tried to defend California’s economic performance, which has made him an easy target. I debunked him earlier this year, and I also linked to a superb Kevin Williamson takedown of Krugman at the bottom of this post.

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Remember Solyndra, the festering symbol of green-energy corruption that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money being flushed down the toilet?

And that was just one example. Based on the ratio of energy produced compared to insider enrichment, the entire green-energy racket is a sleazy boondoggle.

For taxpayers, this is a lose-lose situation. They pay to line the pockets of green donors, and they also suffer as government intervention diverts resources in ways that reduce jobs and economic output.

But look at the bright side. Every so often, some of the insider crooks get caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

In a column for the Washington Examiner, the invaluable Tim Carney highlights some of the insider sleaze that led to the resignation of Oregon’s Democratic Governor.

When a love affair begins with shared dreams of solar panels and fantasies of switchgrass, it shouldn’t surprise us that it leads to tears, resignation and federal investigations. Such is the love story of Oregon’s former governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.

Yup, it appears that Ms. Hayes cashed in on her relationship with the governor.

Hayes…described herself as a “policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber on the issue of clean energy and economic development.” Hayes simultaneously ran a consulting firm called 3E Strategies….Demos was pushing governments to use a new measure of the economy — the Genuine Progress Indicator — in place of Gross Domestic Product. They hired Hayes to aid in this push. Soon, Kitzhaber adopted GPI as a new measure for state policies.

Sounds like pay-to-play, which is so typical of government.

But the GPI scam is just the tip of the iceberg.

…federal investigators are looking into Hayes’s work for companies that profited from Kitzhaber’s green policies. …Green energy deserves more scrutiny than the average industry, because so many of its technologies, being unprofitable and inefficient, depend on government subsidies for their very survival. One Hayes client was a California-based company called Waste to Energy Group. Hayes picked up Waste to Energy as a client in 2011 — after becoming first lady — as the company sought a contract for converting landfill gas into energy. …Mary Rowinski, a governor’s office employee, worked for Hayes. Hayes used Rowinski to set up her meetings with Waste to Energy. …Federal investigators probing the Hayes and Kitzhaber case are also seeking state agency contacts with the Oregon Business Council. The Business Council is a corporate lobby group, and a client of Hayes. …The important lesson is that the more you intertwine business and government, the more opportunities you create for cronyism. And green energy is fertile ground for such problems.

Tim’s lesson is spot on.

When you get big government, you get big corruption.

So how do we reduce sleaze in the political system.

Jay Cost, writing for the 2017 Project, urges an aggressive focus on fighting corruption.

…an anticorruption agenda should be integral to reform conservatism. First, reform conservatism is self-consciously oriented to the middle class, and political corruption works against the interests of the middle class. Usually the product of connections between interests and politicians, it favors the well-connected. The typical insurance agent, bakery owner, or office manager lacks such contacts. Second, an anticorruption agenda challenges the liberal belief that ever more government is good for the middle class. The left wishes to cast itself as defender of middle America and conservatives as champions of the elite. A full-throated attack on cronyism in the distribution of public favors would help conservatives fend off this accusation.

And he recognizes that “legal” corruption is just as big of a problem – perhaps even bigger – than “illegal” corruption.

…there is another form of corruption, an “honest” kind. Politicians see an opportunity to use their public authority to favor some private interest—be it the lobby for some commercial group, a wealthy donor, maybe themselves—and they take it. Often, no law is broken, but the public trust is nevertheless violated. James Madison understood corruption from this perspective—as including but not limited to illegal and venal activity.

So what’s the solution to the legal and illegal sleaze in Washington?

Cost seems to recognize that big government has enabled more corruption.

The legislative power has expanded most in three areas not prominently considered by the Founders: the promotion of economic development, the regulation of the economy, and the provision of social welfare benefits. For Congress, developing the national economy has long meant pork barrel politics. Members love to send money back to the district for improvements to rivers and harbors, for roads, railroads, airports, and so on. They want defense spending similarly distributed. The tax code is another place where Congress, in the name of economic growth, favors special interests. …And on top of this, a vast array of corporate welfare programs, like the Export-Import Bank, pay off various groups.

But he seems to think big government is now inevitable, and perhaps even desirable.

…one of the premises of the new reform conservatism is an acknowledgment that the federal government has a legitimate and potentially beneficial role to play in economic development, health care, education, and so on.

So his proposed reforms are rather tepid.

One goal should be to make it harder for members of Congress to cut deals with special interests. …Committee and subcommittee chairs should be required to obey stricter rules concerning conflicts of interest. They should not be allowed to accept money from interest groups with business before their committees. …the temporary lobbying ban on former members of Congress, now two years, should be extended and its loopholes closed. …Given the highly technical work that senior legislative staffers perform, they are grossly underpaid compared with their private counterparts. …The most skilled staffers should be paid appropriately… Similarly, Congress should increase the size of staffs—perhaps substantially.

Having worked on Capitol Hill, I have to say that I’m underwhelmed by these proposals.

More regulations, more staff, and higher pay are not going to change the culture of Washington.

I’m not sure if Mr. Cost sees himself as a reform conservative, or whether he’s merely offering advice to the so-called reformicons. In any event, his proposals symbolize what’s good and bad about reform conservatism: A recognition that government is causing problems, but solutions that are sometimes too tepid to actually solve problems.

The bottom line is that you can’t fix the corruption problems caused by big government unless you’re actually willing to get rid of big government.

P.S. If it’s true that misery loves company, then we can take solace in the fact that other nations have wasteful and corrupt green energy programs.

P.P.S. In keeping with our tradition, let’s close with a link to some amusing material about green-energy boondoggles.

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I’m a firm believer in climate change. Heck, there have been several ice ages and warming periods, so it’s obvious that temperatures shift over time.

And while I’m not particularly qualified to assess such matters, I’m also willing to believe that human activity has an effect on climate.

Moreover, even though I much prefer warm weather, I’m also open to the idea that global warming might be a bad thing that requires some action.

But here’s the catch. I don’t trust radical environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But you know what’s even worse than a nutty environmentalist?

What terrifies me far more are the very serious, very connected, and very powerful non-nutty environmentalists who hold positions of real power. These folks are filled with arrogance and hubris and they have immense power to cause damage.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s some of what was contained in a release from the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe.

By the way, remember that these excerpts are not the unhinged speculation of some crazy conservative or libertarian. These are actually the words – and stated intentions – of the U.N. bureaucracy. They want central planning on steroids.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC,  warns that the fight against climate change is a process and that the necessary transformation of the world economy will not be decided at one conference or in one agreement. …”This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution. That will not happen overnight and it will not happen at a single conference on climate change, be it COP 15, 21, 40 – you choose the number. It just does not occur like that. It is a process, because of the depth of the transformation.”

Wow. These people want to “intentionally…change the economic development model” that has produced unimagined prosperity.

And they want to replace it with central planning by people who have never demonstrated any ability to generate wealth.

I’m not joking. If you look at Ms. Figueres’ Wikipedia page, you’ll see that she has even less experience in the private sector than President Obama.

Yup, just exactly the kind of pampered (and tax-free) global bureaucrat who should have the power to treat the global economy as some sort of Lego set.

Thomas Sowell has made the very important observation that there’s a giant difference between intelligence and wisdom and Ms. Figueres is a perfect example.

To give you an idea of her cloistered and narrow mindset, she was quoted by Bloomberg as expressing admiration for China’s totalitarian regime over America’s democratic system merely because it ostensibly produces the policies she prefers.

China, the top emitter of greenhouse gases, is also the country that’s “doing it right” when it comes to addressing global warming, the United Nations’ chief climate official said. …China is also able to implement policies because its political system avoids some of the legislative hurdles seen in countries including the U.S., Figueres said. …The political divide in the U.S. Congress has slowed efforts to pass climate legislation and is “very detrimental” to the fight against global warming, she said.

And the icing on the cake, needless to say, is that China’s environment is a catastrophe compared to the much cleaner air and water that exist in the United States!

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that Ms. Figueres is a great admirer of President Obama, even if he does represent a backwards democracy.

The climate chief even held up President Obama as a shining example of steps countries can take to tackle global warming.

Reminds me of a saying about birds of a feather, though I’m not sure how a bird with two left wings can get off the ground.

And don’t even get me started on all the exaggeration and hyperbole that is generated by the radical environmentalists. Though this Jim McKee cartoon is too good not to share.

P.S. Environmentalists are also grotesque hypocrites, as you can see here and here.

P.P.S. But to close on an upbeat note, we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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