Archives: 12/2014

Making War on User Fees

The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so we should solve the problem by making transportation even more political.

Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of 18 months of work by its policy experts. Despite all that work, the report’s conclusions would only make matters worse.

“The user pay principle works in theory,” says the report, “but has not worked in practice, at least as applied to federal transportation funding in the United States to date.” Actually, it worked great as long as Congress respected that principle, which it did from roughly 1956 through 1982. It only started to break down when Congress began diverting funds from highways to other programs. Then it really broke down when Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to spend more from the Trust Fund than it was earning from user fees. (It made the decision to spend a fixed amount each year regardless of revenues in 1998, but spending only actually exceeded revenues starting around 2008.)

Some argue that such breakdowns in the user-fee principle are inevitable when politicians get involved. This suggests that the government should get out of the way and let user fees work again. But Eno ignores that idea, and simply dismisses user fees altogether.

Eno suggests Congress has three options:

  1. Adjust spending to revenues, either by raising gas taxes or reducing spending.
  2. Fund some things out of gas taxes and some things out of general funds (which is more-or-less the status quo).
  3. Get rid of the Highway Trust Fund and just fund all transportation out of general funds.

“Any of these ideas would represent a dramatic improvement over the existing system,” says Eno, which isn’t true since the second idea is, pretty much, the existing system. But “based on our analysis, solution 3 is at least worth exploring.”

Champions at Making Promises

The White House has applauded Portland, Ore., and 15 other local governments as “climate action champions” for promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the White House should have waited to see whether any of the communities managed to meet their goals before patting them on the back.

Portland’s “modest” goal is to reduce the city and Multnomah County emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Planners claim that, as of 2010, the city and county had reduced emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels. However, this claim is full of hot air as all of the reductions are due to causes beyond planners’ control.

Almost two-thirds of the reduction was in the industrial sector, and virtually all of that was due to the closure in 2000 of an aluminum plant that once employed 520 people. The closure of that plant hasn’t led anyone to use less aluminum, so all it did was move emissions elsewhere.

Another 22 percent of the reduction was in residential emissions, and that was due solely to 2010’s “anomalously mild winter” and below-average summer temperatures, as 2009 emissions were greater than those in 1990. Only 7 percent of the reduction was in the transportation sector, for which Portland is famous. But all of that reduction was due to the recession, not the city’s climate plan, as transport-related emissions grew through 2005 and the city didn’t record a reduction until 2009. 

Portland doesn’t have many more large factories that it can put out of business to achieve its climate goals. Nor can the city count on a continued economic depression to keep people from driving or an anomalously mild climate to keep people from turning on their heat or air conditioning.

The lesson here is that cities and counties are the wrong level to try to reduce emissions of something like greenhouse gases. This is a lesson we should have learned already based on our experience with toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.

Mississippi Copies Misguided Energy Subsidies

The federal government has a long history of “green energy” failures. Many states have also foolishly subsidized green energy, including Mississippi.

KiOR biofuels launched several years ago with much fanfare. The company was supposed to turn wood chips into liquid hydrocarbons for use as fuel and promised to revolutionize the energy industry. Its chief investor, Vinod Khosla, described KiOR’s refinery as “an amazing facility.”

The company benefited from a federal biofuel requirement that mandated refiners use 16 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022. It then sought out state subsidies. The company decided to locate in Mississippi after the state offered a $75 million, no-interest loan. In exchange, the company promised to create 1,000 jobs by December 2015.

Yet the company had financial problems that were apparent from the start. Operating costs  ran $5 to $10 a gallon. The Washington Post reports that court papers estimated KiOR’s revenue at just $2.25 million but losses of $629.3 million.  

Production issues also plagued the facility. The system that fed wood chips into the plant frequently malfunctioned. The process converted less than 40 percent of its inputs into gasoline or diesel, leading to higher costs.

The problems were too much for the company to overcome. It filed bankruptcy in November and  still owes Mississippi $69.5 million.

This loan is just one of the many types of energy subsidies that Mississippi provides to green energy companies. The state exempts some green energy manufacturers from taxes. It has provided grants and loans to multiple companies.

Tax Money Down the Drain

There are many types of federal government waste. Perhaps the most glaring is spending on projects that simply do not work. The money is spent, but taxpayers receive no benefit.

From the Washington Post:

Social Security officials have acknowledged that the agency spent nearly $300 million on a computer project that doesn’t work. The agency, however, is trying to revive it. The program is supposed to help workers process and manage claims for disability benefits.

Six years ago, the agency embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been racked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report the agency commissioned.

As a wild guess, let’s say that skilled computer techs cost $150,000 a year in wages and benefits. Apparently then, about 333 of them have been paid for six years, yet have made little or no progress on this mishandled Social Security project.

Here’s a much larger taxpayer black hole, also reported in the Washington Post this week:

One of the first casualties was the Crusader artillery program, which was canceled after the Pentagon spent more than $2 billion on it. Then there was the Comanche helicopter debacle, which got the ax after $8 billion. More than twice that amount had been sunk into the Army’s Future Combat System, but that program got killed, too.

In all, between 2001 and 2011 the Defense Department spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs—including a new version of the president’s helicopter—that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Any organization will go down some wrong paths when it comes to advanced technologies, but $46 billion is a remarkable amount to have sunk into dead-end projects. Let’s say that engineers, machinists, managers, and other workers at defense firms earn an average of $200,000 a year. The $46 billion lost would be like having a small city of 23,000 such high-skill people beavering away for a decade on projects that all end up in the trash bin. I’m not an expert on procurement, but I do know that is a lot of human talent for the government to waste.

Putin’s Speech and the Russian–Western Impasse

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

Connolly: Yes to Privacy Act Liability for Mental and Emotional Distress

A couple of years ago I wrote here about the Supreme Court case denying that a person could collect damages from the government under the Privacy Act based on mental and emotional distress. It’s a narrow point, but an important one, because the harm privacy invasions produce is often only mental and emotional distress. If such injuries aren’t recognized, the Privacy Act doesn’t offer much of a remedy.

Many privacy advocates have sought to bloat privacy regulation by lowering the “harm” bar. They argue that the creation of a privacy risk is a harm or that worrisome information practices are harmful. But I think harm rises above doing things someone might find “worrisome.” Harm can occur, as I think it may have in this case, when one’s (hidden) HIV status and thus sexual orientation is revealed. It’s shown by proving emotional distress to a judge or jury.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) has introduced the fix for the Supreme Court’s overly narrow interpretation of the Privacy Act. His Safeguarding Individual Privacy Against Government Invasion Act of 2014 would allow for non-pecuniary damages—that is, mental and emotional distress—in Privacy Act cases.

It’s a simple fix to a contained problem in federal privacy legislation. It’s passage would not only close a gap in the statute. It would help channel the privacy discussion in the right way, toward real harms, which include provable mental and emotional distress.

Reviving Federalism Is a Winning Issue

In his new book, Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley argues that Congress should abolish the entire federal aid-to-state system to save money and improve American governance. A recent Cato study shows that there is substantial public support for reforms in that direction.

In “Public Attitudes toward Federalism,” John Samples and Emily Ekins review decades of polling data to discern views on federal policymaking vs. state/local policymaking. They find strong support for state/local primacy in many policy areas, including education, housing, transportation, welfare, and health care.

The authors find that Americans have become more strongly in favor of state/local control—as opposed to federal control—since the 1970s. For example, when asked whether “major decisions” about housing policy ought to be made at the federal level or state/local level, just 18 percent favor federal today compared to 28 percent four decades ago.

The political opening here is obvious: reformers on Capitol Hill should push to reduce the federal role—by cutting spending and regulations—in those areas where the public has a clear preference for state/local primacy. From constitutional and good governance perspectives, many federal agencies and programs ought to be eliminated, but the Samples/Ekins study indicates areas that reformers should target first.

Why is reviving federalism a politically appealing reform? Because the public has a much more favorable view of state/local governments than the federal government. Samples and Ekins find that 58 percent of people have a favorable view of local government, compared to just 32 percent for the federal government. Asked which level of government provides the most value for their tax dollars, 33 percent said the federal government and 67 percent said state/local governments. Asked whether government provides “competent service,” 31 percent agreed with regard to the federal government and 48 percent agreed with regard to local governments. On average, Americans believe that the federal government wastes 60 cents out of every dollar it spends.

The Samples/Ekins results show that self-identified Republicans have a stronger belief in decentralized policymaking than do Democrats. So reviving federalism is a ripe opportunity for the incoming Republican majorities in Congress.

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George Will reviews Buckley’s book today in the Washington Post, and you can read more about federalism here.