Posts Tagged ‘Subsidies’

Maybe it’s my snarky sense of humor, but I greatly enjoy when statists accidentally promote free markets and small government.

It seems to happens quite a bit at the New York Times.

A New York Times columnist, for instance, pushed for a tax-hiking fiscal agreement back in 2011 based on a chart showing that the only successful budget deal was the one that cut taxes.

The following year, another New York Times columnist accidentally demonstrated that politicians are trying to curtail tax competition because they want to increase overall tax burdens.

In a major story on the pension system in the Netherlands this year, the New York Times inadvertently acknowledged that genuine private savings is the best route to obtain a secure retirement.

But it’s not just people who write for the New York Times.

The International Monetary Fund accidentally confirmed that the value-added tax is a revenue machine to finance bigger government and heavier tax burdens.

A statist in Illinois tried to argue that higher taxes don’t enable higher spending, but his argument was based on the fact that politicians raised taxes so they wouldn’t have to cut spending.

And a journalist at Mother Jones accidentally showed that lower levels of government spending are correlated with greater job creation.

Now we have something else to add to the list. Some advocates of federally subsidized abortion inadvertently and unwittingly have endorsed the notion that there shouldn’t be any taxpayer handouts to the nation’s largest abortion provider.

I don’t know if either Planned Parenthood or Congressman Bera are oblivious, entitled, or mendacious, but this retweeted quote really deserves some sort of prize. They obviously want to promote the status quo of federal subsidies for the organization, but the call to “take gov’t out of the exam room” accidentally makes the libertarian case that government money shouldn’t be involved.

What makes this especially amusing is that Congressman Bera is a doctrinaire statist, receiving an “F” on his spending record from the National Taxpayers Union.

Needless to say, both the Congressman and Planned Parenthood obviously do want the handouts. They simply don’t want any oversight or attention on how the money is spent. But it’s nice that they both inadvertently endorsed the right approach.

P.S. Let’s shift gears and look at another example of “gov’t” in action. I’ve previously written about the fiasco at the Veterans Administration. Not only did the bureaucracy maintain secret waiting lists, but they awarded themselves bonuses.

Well, we now have some data on the horrific consequences of the bureaucracy’s disgusting behavior.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General on Wednesday confirmed that more than one-third of the people thought to be seeking eligibility for VA benefits are deceased, and said many of them have been dead for more than four years. …The OIG’s report…said 307,000 names on the VA’s list of pending enrollees were deceased. That’s 35 percent of the 867,000 people on the list as of last year.

Wow, many segments of the population that have been disadvantaged by Obamacare, including ones that deserve sympathy, such as children, low-income workers, and retirees, as well as those that don’t deserve much sympathy, such as congressional staff, IRS bureaucrats, and Harvard professors.

But I think we can safely say that America’s veterans clearly have suffered the most because of government-run healthcare.

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Over the past few years, Hillary Clinton has taken advantage of several opportunities to demonstrate that she doesn’t understand economics.

Though that’s not a problem. I have friends who routinely demonstrate their economic ignorance by saying things that don’t make sense.

The problem is that Hillary may actually wind up in a position of power. So there’s a danger that the entire nation could be victimized because of her disregard of the laws of supply and demand.

Let’s look at a fresh example. The New York Times has a story about Ms. Clinton’s latest effort to bribe people with their own money.

Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday will propose major new spending by the federal government that would help undergraduates pay tuition at public colleges without needing loans. …her proposals…would cost $350 billion over 10 years…about $175 billion in grants would go to states that guarantee that students would not have to take out loans to cover tuition at four-year public colleges and universities.

To make matters worse, some of this money would be used to bribe states into additional spending (sort of the higher-education version of Obamacare’s Medicaid scam).

In return for the money, states would have to end budget cuts to increase spending over time on higher education, while also working to slow the growth of tuition, though the plan does not require states to cap it.

And to make matters even worsier (yes, that’s a made-up word, but it seems appropriate), there’s a big tax increase to finance Ms. Clinton’s new scheme.

Mrs. Clinton would pay for the plan by capping the value of itemized deductions that wealthy families can take on their tax returns.

I don’t like distortionary tax preferences, but loopholes should be eliminated as part of a shift to a low-rate flat tax, not to finance the vote-buying schemes of the crowd in Washington.

But let’s set aside the concerns about fiscal policy and focus on what Clinton’s plan would mean for higher education.

And we’ll start with a thought experiment. Imagine you sold cars and the government decided to give people lots of money to buy your products. In the world of economics, this causes the “demand curve” to shift to the right.

Now answer a simple question: Would car prices under this policy (a) increase, or (b) decrease?

The obvious answer is (a). That’s certainly what has happened in the healthcare sector because of programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. That also happened in housing last decade thanks to bad monetary policy and corrupt Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies.

Moreover, there’s lots of evidence that the same thing already has happened with higher education. And now there’s new research that reaches the same conclusion.

As pointed out by the Wall Street Journal, recent scholarly data confirms that colleges and universities jack up prices to capture the additional subsidies.

Politicians…their solutions—cheap loans and taxpayer cash—end up increasing the cost of a degree. The latest evidence that schools jack up tuition to absorb federal money comes in a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. …The Fed researchers looked at how colleges responded when Congress bumped up per pupil aid limits between 2006 and 2008. Sure enough, students took out more loans, but universities gobbled up most of the money. Ohio University economist Richard Vedder connected these dots a decade ago, estimating in 2006 that every dollar of grant aid raised tuition 35 cents. He now looks prescient. The New York Fed study found that for every new dollar a college receives in Direct Subsidized Loans, a school raises its price by 65 cents. For every dollar in Pell Grants, a college raises tuition by 55 cents. This is one reason tuition has outpaced inflation every year for decades, while the average borrower now finishes college owing more than $28,000.

So what’s the bottom line? What will happen if Hillary Clinton expands subsidies to higher education?

Simple, more government subsidies will mean more wasteful inefficiency and higher costs.

Administrative bloat, reduced faculty loads and Shangri La dorms… College will continue to be expensive as long as government aid amounts to a wealth transfer to universities.

In other words, Ms. Clinton’s plan will double down on the policies (described in this video) that already have made college needlessly expensive.

All she’s doing is shifting more of the cost onto the backs of taxpayers.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this mess. Simply get the federal government out of the education business. This would reverse the bad policies that have caused colleges and universities to become more expensive and less efficient.

Sadly, this ideal approach probably won’t be adopted anytime soon.

But that doesn’t mean progress is impossible. Washington may actually move policy a bit in the right direction. And Elizabeth Warren (yes, that Elizabeth Warren) may even play a constructive role.

As reported by the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post, there’s growing interest in a plan to make colleges and universities partly responsible when students default on loans.

A coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers is promoting a plan on Capitol Hill that would force colleges to pay up when their students default. If schools share the risk of borrowing or have some “skin in the game,” policymakers figure they would work harder to keep costs down….Senate Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), introduced legislation in 2013 requiring schools with default rates above 15 percent to reimburse the government 5 percent of the total defaulted debt. The higher the default rate, the higher the penalty. …Congressional Republicans are renewing the call for schools to share the risk of borrowing, as are presidential hopefuls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ben Carson. The policy is being considered as a part of the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act.

The story even has some very sensible economic analysis about how third-party payer should be blamed for rising prices.

As it stands, there is little incentive for colleges to keep costs under control. As long as there is a supply of students and federal financial aid, both for-profit and nonprofit schools can charge high prices and encourage people to take out loans to cover the cost. If schools had a financial stake in every student’s ability to repay loans, they might be less inclined to saddle students with debt in the first place—or they might lower costs altogether.

Gee, what a shocking thought. If people have to play with their own money rather than taxpayer money, they suddenly behave more responsibly!

P.S. We should also remember that there is such a thing as too much “investment” in higher education.

P.P.S. Third-party payer in higher education also shows how government money can corrupt private institutions. Though any effort to stamp out such corruption should apply equally to government schools as well.

P.P.P.S. Now for the most important news. The Beltway Bandits are now Eastern National Champions of 55+ AAA softball, winning five straight games in Raleigh, NC, this past weekend.

We’ll play in Las Vegas for a national title in late September.

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I’ve shared lots of analysis (both serious and satirical) about the mess in Greece and I feel obliged to comment on the latest agreement for another bailout.

But how many times can I write that the Greek government spends too much money and has a punitive tax system (and a crazy regulatory regime, a bloated bureaucracy, etc)?

So let’s try a different approach and tell a story about the new bailout by using some images.

Here’s an amusing perspective on what actually happened this weekend.

I explained a few days ago that the bailouts have simultaneously enabled the delay of much-needed spending reforms while also burdening Greece with an impossible pile of debt.

But the Greek bailouts, like the TARP bailout in the United States, were beneficial to powerful insiders.

Here’s a look at how banks in various European nations have been able to reduce their exposure to Greek debt.

Sure, the banks almost surely still lost money, but they also transferred a lot of the losses to taxpayers.

To get a sense of the magnitude of handouts, here’s a chart from a Washington Post story.

And now, assuming the deal gets finalized, that pile of foolish and unsustainable debt will be even bigger.

One of the main components of the new agreement is that Greece supposedly will raise revenue by selling $50 billion of state-owned assets.

Don’t believe that number. But not because there aren’t plenty of assets to sell, but rather because the track record on privatization proceeds suggests that there is a giant gap between what Greece promises and what Greece delivers.

To understand why assets aren’t being sold, just keep in mind that most of the assets are under the control of the government in order to provide unearned benefits to different interest groups.

If you’re an overpaid unionized worker at a government-owned port, for instance, the last thing you want is to have that port sold to a private investor who presumably would want to link pay to productivity.

Here’s the best bit of humor I’ve seen about the negotiations this past weekend. It purports to show a list of demands from Germany to Greece.

While this image is funny, it’s also wrong.

Germany isn’t imposing anything on Greece. The Germans are simply stating that Greek politicians need to make some changes if they want more handouts.

Moreover, it’s quite likely that Germany will wind up being a big loser when the dust settles. Here’s some of what Gideon Rachman wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to. The Syriza government will clearly do all it can to thwart the deal it has just signed. If that is a German victory, I would hate to see a defeat.

So true.

I fear this deal will simply saddle Greece with a bigger pile of debt and set the stage for a more costly default in the future.

The title of this column is about pictures. But let’s close with some good and bad analysis about the Greek mess.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Louis Woodhill has some of the best insight, starting with the fact that the bailout does two things.

First, this new bailout is largely just a mechanism to prevent default on past bailouts. Sort of like making a new loan to your deadbeat brother-in-law to cover what he owes you on previous loans.

…the €53.5 billion in new loans…would just be recycled to Greece’s creditors (the IMF, the EU, and the ECB) to pay the interest and principal on existing debts.

Second, it prevents the full meltdown of Greek banks.

The key point is that a bailout agreement would restore European Central Bank (ECB) “Emergency Liquidity Assistance” (ELA) to the Greek banking system. This would allow Greeks that still have deposits in Greek banks (€136.5 billion as of the end of May) to get their money out of those banks.

That’s good news if you’re a Greek depositor, but that’s about it.

In other words, those two “achievements” don’t solve the real problem of Greece trying to consume more than it produces.

Indeed, Woodhill correctly identifies a big reason to be very pessimist about the outcome of this latest agreement. Simply stated, Greek politicians (aided and abetted by the Troika) are pursuing the wrong kind of austerity.

…what is killing Greece is a lack of economic growth, and the meat of Tsipras’ bailout proposal consists of growth-killing tax hikes. The media and the economics profession have been framing the alternatives for Greece in terms of a choice between “austerity” and “stimulus.” Unfortunately for Greece, austerity has come to mean tax increases, and stimulus has come to mean using “other people’s money” (mainly that of German taxpayers) to support Greek welfare state outlays. So, if “other people” aren’t willing to fund more Greek government spending, then the only option the “experts” can imagine is to raise taxes on an economy that is already being crushed by excessive taxation.

Let’s close with the most ridiculous bit of analysis about the Greek situation. It’s from Joe Stiglitz,

Joseph Stiglitz accused Germany on Sunday of displaying a “lack of solidarity” with debt-laden Greece that has badly undermined the vision of Europe. …”Asking even more from Greece would be unconscionable. If the ECB allows Greek banks to open up and they renegotiate whatever agreement, then wounds can heal. But if they succeed in using this as a trick to get Greece out, I think the damage is going to be very very deep.”

Needless to say, I’m not sure why it’s “solidarity” for one nation to mooch in perpetuity from another nation. I suspect Stiglitz is mostly motivated by an ideological desire to redistribute from the richer Germans to the poorer Greeks,

But I’m more interested in why he isn’t showing “solidarity” to me. I’m sure both his income and his wealth are greater than mine. So if equality of outcomes is desirable, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is by sending me a big check?

Needless to say, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the money. Like most leftists, Stiglitz likes to atone for his feelings of guilt by redistributing other people’s money.

And I also won’t be holding my breath waiting for a good outcome in Greece. As I wrote five-plus years ago, Greece needs the tough-love approach of no bailouts, which would mean a default but also an immediate requirement for a balanced budget.

Last but not least, I’m going to confess a possible mistake. I always thought that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. But this latest bailout of Greece shows that maybe politicians from other nations are foolish enough to provide an endless supply of other people’s money.

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Advocates of economic liberty, free market, and small government haven’t enjoyed many victories in the 21st Century.

Government got bigger and more expensive during Bush’s reign, starting in his first year with the No Bureaucrat Left Behind legislation and then ending in his final year with the odious TARP bailout.

Then Obama came to office, promising “hope and change,” but then proceeded to act like Bush on steroids, giving us the faux stimulus his first year and then the Obamacare boondoggle his second year.

But there have been a few victories since 2010.

The sequester unquestionably was Obama’s biggest defeat, and that policy helped contribute (along with debt limit fights and shutdown battles) to a much-needed five-year slowdown in federal spending between 2009 and 2014.

That’s certainly not a permanent victory, particularly since our long-run fiscal crisis will still be enormous in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

But better to have some short-run spending restraint than none at all.

And since we’re looking at victories, we have something new to celebrate. Today (July 1) is the first day in decades that America is freed from a very misguided form of corporate welfare known as the Export-Import Bank.

This bit of cronyism was created to give undeserved wealth to big companies by guaranteeing some of their sales to foreign customers, and I argued in 2012 and earlier this year that shutting down the Ex-Im Bank was a test of seriousness for the GOP..

They sort of passed the test. The Ex-Im Bank needed to be authorized by midnight on June 30 to stay in operation and that didn’t happen.

However, this victory also isn’t permanent. Cronyists in the business community plan to push for re-authorization later this year, so it’s still an open question on who will prevail. Particularly since there are some GOPers who like big business more than free markets.

But at least for today, we can enjoy this image from the Ex-Im Bank’s website.

For more information why the Ex-Im Bank should not be re-authorized and instead should be permanently shut down, here are some excerpts from a column by Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus.

Ex-Im Bank puts millions of consumers, firms and workers at a disadvantage. As such, closing it down is an important first step in the battle against the unhealthy marriage between the government and corporate America. …Over 60 percent of the bank’s financing aids 10 giant beneficiaries, like Caterpillar, Bechtel, and General Electric. On the foreign side, the cheap loans go to state-owned companies like Pemex, the Mexican government’s oil and gas giant, or Air Emirates, the airline of the wealthy United Arab Emirates. …More than 98 percent of all U.S. exports occur with no Ex-Im Bank subsidies at all. And considering who the beneficiaries of Ex-Im on the domestic and foreign sides are, there’s no chance that all Ex-Im supported exports will disappear.

And let’s not forget the costs imposed on the rest of the economy thanks to this bit of corporate welfare.

Economists have shown that while export subsidies boost the profits of the recipients, it tends to have a negative impact on economy as a whole by shifting capital, economic growth, jobs and profits from unsubsidized firms to subsidized ones. …victims are taxpayers who now bear the risk for $140 billion in liabilities. These victims are consumers who pay higher prices for the purchase of subsidized goods. These victims are unsubsidized firms competing with subsidized ones. They not only pay higher financing costs but also lose out when private capital flows to politically privileged firms regardless of the merits of their projects. Some are even victimized multiple times: first as taxpayers, then as consumers, then as competitors, and finally as borrowers.

Speaking of economic costs, you definitely should click here and watch a video by another Mercatus expert of why the Ex-Im Bank undermines economic efficiency.

Like Veronique, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is one of the unsung heroes in the fight against the Ex-Im Bank. Here’s some of his column from yesterday.

The Export-Import Bank is down. …Legally, Ex-Im’s officers, employees and board members must cease their typical work of subsidizing Boeing, J.P. Morgan and Chinese state-owned enterprises. Instead, under the law that authorized it, Ex-Im is allowed to exist only “for purposes of orderly liquidation, including the administration of its assets and the collection of any obligations held by the bank.” …This week’s knockdown of Ex-Im should be seen in exactly this light: It is an early and visible victory for the GOP’s free-market forces over the forces of K Street, which for so long held a monopoly on the party.

I should also point out that some of my colleagues at the Cato Institute have been working hard for years to explain why the Ex-Im Bank should be abolished. Kudos also to Heritage Action for fighting against this corrupt cronyist institution.

Last but not least, here’s a video Nick narrated last year on why the Ex-Im Bank should not be re-authorized. I like how he starts with a clip of Obama the candidate citing it as wasteful corporate welfare. Now that he’s in power, though, he’s decided the cesspool of DC corruption is really a hot tub.

P.S. Speaking of leftist phonies, Elizabeth Warren likes to portray herself as a scourge of big business, yet she’s a supporter of continued handouts for corporate fatcats. A fake populist, and a fake Indian.

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What’s the most effective way of screwing up a sector of the economy? Since I’m a fiscal policy economist, I’m tempted to say that bad tax policy is the fastest way of causing damage. And France might be my top example.

But other forms of government intervention also can have a poisonous effect. Regulation, for instance, imposes an enormous burden on our economy.

Today, though, we’re going to look at how subsidies can result in costly distortions. More specifically, using examples from the health sector and higher-ed sectors, we’re going to see how “third-party payer” is a very expensive form of intervention.

We’ll start with the example from the healthcare sector. Writing for the Institute for Policy Innovation, Merrill Matthews has a must-read article about an unintended consequences of Obamacare.

He starts with a very sensible point about the effect of third-party payer.

Health care actuaries will tell you that when people have to spend more out of pocket for health care, they tend to spend less. And when a third party—employers, health insurers or the government—insulates consumers from the cost of care they tend to spend more. Just imagine how much more people would spend on cars if they could have any car they wanted for a $20 copay.

The car-buying example is great. I’ve previously tried to make the same point about third-party payer by using the examples of home insurance and car insurance, but I may have to steal Merrill’s argument since it’s so intuitively effective.

But that’s a digression. Merrill has a far more important point about what’s actually happening today in the health care sector.

…out-of-pocket spending on health care has declined for decades—until the Affordable Care Act kicked in. In 1961, Americans forked over 43 cents out of their own pocket for every dollar spent on health care. That out-of-pocket spending steadily declined over the years so that by 2010 consumers were only spending about 12 cents out of pocket.Enter Obamacare in 2010. By 2012 out-of-pocket spending had risen to 14.8 percent of total health care spending, and by 2013 it was up to 15.2 percent, according to the Health Care Cost Institute. With people spending more out of pocket, they will naturally curb their spending. And expect to be spending more out of pocket in the future. That’s in part because so many Americans have had to shift to very high deductible policies in order to afford Obamacare’s very expensive coverage. Thank you, President Obama! …The upshot of these higher deductibles is that people will spend less on health care, and that is helping to slow the growth in health care spending—giving Obama his boasting point. Rising deductibles aren’t the only factor, but they are an important one.

Yet Obama doesn’t really deserve to boast.

But here’s the irony: Obama never intended any of this. He thought Obamacare would reduce out-of-pocket spending. And he and most Democrats have railed against high-deductible policies for years, claiming that greedy health insurers were taking people’s money but didn’t have to pay any claims (because of the high deductibles). And yet under Obamacare deductibles have never been so high. The fact is that moving to higher deductibles, especially when accompanied by a tax-free health care spending account for smaller and routine expenditures, is good policy.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s “Cadillac tax” on employer-provided health insurance also is good policy (though it was implemented the wrong way).

So maybe, as that policy also takes effect, we’ll get even further reductions over time in third-party payer!

Which might cause me adjust my overall assessment of Obamacare. In the past, I’ve said it was awful policy because it expanded the Medicaid entitlement while also mucking up the private insurance market.

All that’s still true, but we’re getting some unintended consequences that are positive. Not only are some states refusing to expand Medicaid, but Merrill’s big point is that the private insurance market is evolving in ways that have some good effects.

So maybe instead of Obamacare shifting us from a 68-percent-government-controlled healthcare system to one where government has 79-percent control, as I speculated back in 2013, maybe we’ll wind up with a system that’s “only” 73-percent dictated by government.

Not a victory, to be sure, but at least we’re going in the wrong direction at a slower pace.

Now let’s shift to the higher-ed sector.

Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, writes in The Atlantic about the surging level of subsidies for higher education.

…when considering government support for American higher education as a whole, subsidies for colleges and universities are—even on a per-student basis and despite the enrollment explosion—greater than ever before. In particular, per-capita government subsidies are far higher now than they were 35 years ago, when tuition was drastically lower. …The federal government is currently spending approximately $80 billion per year on subsidies for higher education—a figure that almost exactly matches the combined higher-ed spending of the 50 legislatures. …The Pell grant program has expanded rapidly, more than tripling in size since 2000.  …What’s far less known…is the remarkable extent to which the federal tax code has been amended in ways that benefit colleges and universities. According to the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation’s most recent estimates of federal tax expenditures, the IRS is currently redistributing approximately $45.7 billion annually in tax revenue in ways that directly and indirectly support American higher education. (This represents a 675 percent increase in such spending since 1990.)

Even though I agree with his analysis, I get agitated when tax preferences are referred to as “spending.”

But that’s not particularly relevant today. What matters is that there’s been an unbroken increase in handouts and subsidies for the higher-ed sector over the past few decades.

Here’s a chart from his article.

Now let’s look at the policy implications. Mr. Campos outlines a series of problems in the higher-education sector.

…total per-student government support for higher education has increased. Yet this increase has failed to stop or even slow massive tuition increases at both public and private schools. …many higher-ed institutions have become increasingly bloated and inefficient—even as they’ve relied on a growing population of poorly paid contingent faculty members and on hundreds of billions of dollars of federal student loans, only a small percentage of which are currently being repaid in a timely manner. …roughly half of recent college graduates in the U.S. find themselves either unemployed or seriously underemployed. And many graduates struggle to pay educational debts that, unlike almost all other debts in American society, typically can’t be settled via bankruptcy.

But he doesn’t really connect the dots, other than to point out that it is absurdly dishonest when some people (like Senator Bernie Sanders) want others to believe that we need even more intervention and more handouts to compensate for non-existent budget cuts.

Claiming that skyrocketing tuition has been caused by “cuts” in government subsidies only helps delay American higher education’s inevitable day of fiscal reckoning.

If he did connect the dots, he would have explained that the higher-ed sector is needlessly expensive and pointlessly inefficient because of all the subsidies from government.

He may even agree with that assessment, though he isn’t explicit about the connection. Though Professor Richard Vedder doesn’t hesitate in pointing out that bad government policy deserves the blame.

And if you want to learn more, here’s a great video from Learn Liberty explaining why subsidies have translated into higher tuition.

Last but not least, here’s my two cents on the issue, including my dour prediction that the higher-ed bubble won’t pop until and unless we stop the handouts from government.

Yet another reason why we should dismantle the Department of Education.

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I almost feel sorry for my leftist friends. Whenever there’s a story about a crazed shooter, they invariably speculate that it’s someone affiliated with the Tea Party. So they must be sad when it turns out to be a random nut or in some cases a leftist.

Similarly, when the news broke a few days ago about the Amtrak derailment, they instantly decided that the crash was the result of inadequate handouts from Washington. So imagine how forlorn they must be since it turns out the bureaucrat in charge of the train was traveling at about twice the appropriate speed.

But let’s set aside the tender feelings of our statist buddies and look to see whether there are any policy lessons to learn from the recent Amtrak tragedy.

Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson makes a key point that Amtrak, like other parts of government, is first and foremost focused on maximizing the amount of money that can be extracted from taxpayers.

…everything from the stimulus bill to regular appropriations has spent billions of dollars on Amtrak, and Amtrak still failed to install the speed-control system that was supposed to be completed this year — a system that the NTSB and others believe would have prevented this accident. So, the “investments” in safety systems have produced no safety system. Where does Amtrak spend its money? Almost every dime of ticket revenue is spent on personnel — salaries, benefits, bonuses, etc.  Amtrak can’t be bothered to finish up a safety system on time. But did Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman ever miss a nickel of his $350,000-a-year salary? No. Did Amtrak fail to pay employee bonuses? No—in fact, it paid bonuses to people who weren’t even eligible for them, and then refused to rescind them once it was pointed out that they were unauthorized. So Amtrak took care of Amtrak’s priorities, just like every other government agency. But Amtrak’s priorities are not its customers’ priorities.

In other words, the culture at Amtrak is to maximize goodies from government, not to maximize profits, which is the culture at a real company.

And the beneficiaries are the overpaid bureaucrats who operate Amtrak, as well as the insiders (like Joe Biden’s son) who get special appointments to Amtrak’s board of directors.

So what, then, is the solution?

As explained by Jeffrey Dorfman, an economics professor at the University of Georgia, it’s time to wean Amtrak from the public teat.

…within two days liberal politicians had seized on the occasion to demand larger subsidies for Amtrak. In fact, the events of last week show the precise opposite-Amtrak should not receive a larger subsidy, but rather should be sold off and privatized. Currently, Amtrak receives more than $1 billion in funding from Congress although it still manages to lose money. …This leads to the question of why Americans taxpayers should subsidize a rail service that only somewhere around one or two percent of Americans actually use. The clear and obvious answer is that they should not be. While Democratic leaders are calling for more federal funding, the problem is not a lack of subsidies but instead that Amtrak’s leadership is divided between serving its customers and serving the political benefactors who provide it with about $1.4 billion per year. If Amtrak was privatized, it could focus solely on serving its customers. If those customers were concerned with safety, then Amtrak would prioritize safety improvements because that would be a necessary step to staying in business.

Moreover, Amtrak would have the incentive to behave rationally if it wasn’t sponging off taxpayers.

If sold for a fairly low valuation for a railroad, Amtrak would sell for around $6.5 to $7 billion. …the federal government would save the $1.4 billion each year that it has been providing to Amtrak. After privatization, Amtrak will know that federal government subsidies are not available to it and will focus on serving its customers and turning a profit. That may mean that some routes are discontinued or continue operating with fewer scheduled trains. At the same time, some routes, such as those in the northeast corridor, may see an increase in the quality and frequency of service as Amtrak responds to the level of consumer demand in the free market.

Notwithstanding the recent accident, trains actually are very safe. And in the absence of government meddling, a private rail company would have the right incentives to produce the correct amount of investments in safety.

Train travel is already ten times safer than driving in terms of deaths per mile traveled. It is possible that riders do not want to pay more for train tickets in exchange for safety improvements. After all, Amtrak is actually ahead of many private railroads in installing the positive train control safety systems. However, if riders demand it, a private, profit-oriented railroad will provide it.

P.S. Here’s a personal story to give you a sense of Amtrak’s misguided culture.

P.P.S. The good news, for what it’s worth, is that Amtrak is a bargain for taxpayers compared to the rail boondoggle taking place in California. And I guess we should be happy that we don’t have the Chinese version of Amtrak.

P.P.P.S. Don’t carry a lot of cash if you’re a young black male and riding Amtrak.

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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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