Tag: federal subsidies

Caribbean Trade Dispute Gives the U.S. a Rum for Its Money

Rum subsidies in U.S. Caribbean islands have sparked an internal trade war and are inviting a World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge from ill-affected countries in the region. According to an envoy representing a number of Caribbean countries that recently came to Washington, the U.S. government is unwittingly funding industrial policy in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by tying aid dollars to rum production in a way that is inconsistent with our trade obligations and may cause the destruction of the entire foreign Caribbean rum industry. Under current law, U.S. Caribbean islands receive money from the U.S. treasury based on how much rum they import to the mainland. In recent years, they’ve begun to use that money to increase the amount of rum they produce,  so they can get even more money. Although the total amount of money involved is low enough to keep it under Congress’s (myopic) radar, the resulting subsidies are too high for independent Caribbean economies to compete against. Unless Congress places restrictions on how the money can be used, the United States could once again find itself in the embarrassing position of being taken before the WTO for accidentally ruining the economy of a small Caribbean island.

The antagonist in this saga is something known as the “rum cover-over” program. As it does with all distilled spirits, the federal government charges an excise tax of $13.50 per proof gallon of rum sold in the United States. This equates to roughly $2 per bottle. Under the cover-over program, almost all of that money is directly granted to the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico using a complex formula so that each receives a share of the money based on how much rum it produces relative to the other. The tax is collected from sales of all rum imported to the mainland, even from other countries, and in 2010 the cover-over amounted to approximately $450 million—$100 million to the Virgin Islands and $350 million to Puerto Rico.

The industrial death spiral began when the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands cleverly discovered that, instead of using the money for infrastructure and welfare programs, it could use the bulk of the money to entice Captain Morgan producer Diageo to relocate there from Puerto Rico. Because the move will increase rum production in the U.S. Virgin Islands relative to Puerto Rico, the subsidy more than pays for itself by it helping the territory capture a larger share of cover-over funds.

Puerto Rico initially asked Congress for help. There is currently no rule on how the two entities can spend the cover-over funds, so Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to Congress, known as a Resident Commissioner, proposed legislation that would cap at 15 percent the portion of the funds that could be used to subsidize rum production. When that effort failed, the Puerto Rican government reportedly responded by ramping up its own subsidy programs. The result has been an expensive trade war over mainland consumer tax dollars granted in return for rum production.  For perspective on how important this is for the players involved, it’s worth noting that the U.S. Virgin Islands government has an annual budget of just under $1 billion dollars and is hoping to increase its cover-over revenue from $100 million to $240 million.

The new twist on this saga comes from the detrimental effect this subsidy war has had on rum production in other parts of the Caribbean. Matched up against firms receiving U.S. subsidies reported to be close to or even to exceed production costs, producers in other Caribbean countries are unable to compete in the U.S. market on price. These economies generally rely on tourism and raw material exports and have precious few value-added industries. If the United States is interested in economic development in the region, the least it could do is refrain from crippling emerging industries with unfair subsidies. While the two U.S. Caribbean governments spend federal tax dollars to entice major rum brands to their islands in order to earn more federal tax dollars, the rest of the Caribbean is struggling just to stay afloat.

It should not be surprising then that the form, size, and effect of these subsidies establish a strong case that the United States is in violation of its trade obligations, and Caribbean representatives have raised the possibility of a challenge at the WTO. WTO rules prohibit subsidies that are targeted to a single industry and cause injury to that industry in the territory of another member. Also, the size and amount of production covered by these subsidies may be so great that they could be considered “contingent in fact on export performance”—a kind of subsidy that is strictly prohibited.

This situation is certainly not just a local issue between two somewhat-foreign governments. The program implicates U.S. trade obligations toward vulnerable Caribbean neighbors, and Congress, being the enabler of the dispute, is already involved. A program that directly pits two U.S. jurisdictions against each other in a fight for hundreds of millions of dollars with no strings attached is unjustifiably irrational, and no one should be surprised that it hasn’t gone well. Capping the amount of the cover-over funds that can be used to support rum production, as originally proposed by Puerto Rico, is an effective and painless way to fix the problem, or at least to keep it from getting worse.

Pennsylvania Moves to Starve Poor People

That’s the message I came away with after reading an online article from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter about a decision by the state of Pennsylvania to limit eligibility for food stamps. The article is a perfect example of the difficulty advocates for limited government face in communicating their ideas through the mainstream press.

At issue is the PA Department of Public Welfare’s decision to eliminate eligibility for food stamps for people under the age of 60 who have more than $2,000 in assets (the value of one’s house, retirement benefits, and car would be excluded). The DPW estimates that only “2 percent of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps would be affected by the asset test.” Indeed, the DPW’s website notes that “Because of changes to SNAP, most Pennsylvania households are not subject to a net income limit, nor are they subject to any resource or asset limits.”

(SNAP is the acronym for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was known as the Food Stamp program until 2008 when Congress changed its name to sound more palatable. The program is run jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state governments, but federal taxpayers pay for the direct benefits.)

One of the “changes” that the DPW refers to is categorical eligibility, which basically means that Pennsylvania households already receiving benefits from other welfare programs, including cash welfare and Supplemental Security Income, automatically qualify for food stamps. In recent years, both the state of Pennsylvania and the federal government have made it easier to qualify for food stamps benefits.

Unfortunately, the Inquirer reporter either wasn’t aware of these details or didn’t deem them important enough for inclusion. Instead, he quotes ten—let me repeat that, ten—critics of the DPW’s decision. The critics include a “national hunger expert,” the legal director of a “leading anti-hunger group,” the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the executive director of the “liberal Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center,” and an older woman who says that she’ll “have to give up paying for my health insurance.”

It took me all of two minutes to get a quote from Nathan Benefield, the director of policy analysis at Pennsylvania’s pro-liberty Commonwealth Foundation:

Unfortunately for taxpayers, politicians in Harrisburg and Washington have for the past few years considered it a “success” to have more families on welfare. Pennsylvania welfare eligibility and spending—including for food stamps—has exploded, threatening to crowd out everything else in the state budget. Means testing for assets is a common-sense reform to ensure those who truly need aid get it.

There, was that so hard?

Of course, journalists who are interested in getting the pro-liberty take on welfare reform are welcome to contact my colleagues and me at the Cato Institute. Honestly, we don’t want people to starve in order to save a buck—we just believe that the federal government is an improper and less effective means for assisting those who are truly in need. Pressed for time? Here are Cato essays on food subsidies, welfare, and federal subsidies to state and local government.

Coburn Report on Subsidies for Millionaires

Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) new report on the various federal subsidies being collected by millionaires deserves applause for not resorting to class warfare rhetoric in making the point that it’s silly for wealthy folks to receive taxpayer handouts:

We should never demonize those who are successful. Nor should we pamper them with unnecessary welfare to create an appearance everyone is benefiting from federal programs.

Coburn says that “this reverse Robin Hood style of wealth redistribution is an intentional effort to get all Americans bought into a system where everyone appears to benefit.” That’s true. Whether it is food subsidies or unemployment benefits, the cheerleaders for federal redistribution schemes would have the public believe that it’s all about “helping those in need” when in fact it’s really about fostering dependency on taxpayers. A dirty little secret that the media typically fails to recognize is that many of the people pushing for these programs stand to financially benefit themselves. And as we have documented over at DownsizingGovernment.org, government programs do a poor job of helping the people that they purportedly serve.

Gov. Perry and Those DREAM Act Kids

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been beaten up in recent GOP presidential primary debates over his signing of a bill in 2001 giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrant kids in Texas. Look for the issue to come up again at tonight’s debate in New Hampshire.

In a free society, so-called DREAM Act legislation would be unnecessary. Opportunities for legal immigration would be open wide enough that illegal immigration would decline dramatically. And higher education would be provided in a competitive market without state and federal subsidies. But that is not yet the world we live in.

On the federal level, the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would offer permanent legal status to illegal immigrant children who graduate from high school and then complete at least two years of college or serve in the U.S. military. Legal status would allow them to qualify for in-state tuition in the states where they reside, and would eventually lead to citizenship.

Those who respond that such a law would amount to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants should keep a couple of points in mind.

First, kids eligible under the DREAM Act came to the United States when they were still minors, many of them at a very young age. They were only obeying their parents, something we should generally encourage young children to do.

Second, these kids are a low-risk, high-return bet for legalization. Because they came of age in the United States, they are almost all fluent in English and identify with America as their home (for many the only one they have ever known). “Assimilation” will not be an issue.

They also represent future workers and taxpayers. The definitive 1997 study on immigration by the National Research Council, The New Americans, determined that an immigrant with some college education represents a large fiscal gain for government at all levels. Over his or her lifetime, such an immigrant will pay $105,000 more in taxes than he or she consumes in government services, on average and expressed in net present value (see p. 334). In other words, legalizing an immigrant with post-secondary education is equivalent to paying off $105,000 in government debt.

According to estimates by the Immigration Policy Center, the DREAM Act as introduced in 2009 would offer immediate legalization to 114,000 young illegal immigrants who have already earned the equivalent of an associate’s degree. Another 612,000 who have already graduated from high school would be eligible for provisional status and would then have a strong incentive to further their education at the college level to gain permanent status. If all 726,000 of them studied at college and became legal permanent residents, it would be equivalent to retiring $76 billion of government debt.

In all, a potential 2.1 million kids could eventually be eligible for permanent legal residency under terms of the DREAM Act, representing a potential fiscal windfall to the government of more than $200 billion. Not to mention their potential contributions to our culture and economy.

Strong Cities, Strong Communities: Bad Idea

When government officials come up with what they claim to be a wonderful new idea, I often think of an old Saturday Night Live skit from 1990 poking fun at commercials for blue jeans. The skit’s scene is a group of middle-aged buddies getting ready to play basketball in their new “Bad Idea Jeans.” Each guy optimistically announces a plan to do something that is actually a “bad idea.” For example, a character says “I don’t know the guy but I’ve got two kidneys and he needs one, so I figured…” and “BAD IDEA” flashes across the screen. (The skit can be watched here.)

The White House’s new “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” initiative had that BAD IDEA screen shot flashing repeatedly in my mind as I read the press release:

Today, the Obama Administration launched Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2), a new and customized pilot initiative to strengthen local capacity and spark economic growth in local communities while ensuring taxpayer dollars are used wisely and efficiently. To accomplish this, federal agencies will provide experienced staff to work directly with six cities: Chester, PA; Cleveland, OH; Detroit, MI; Fresno, CA; Memphis, TN; and New Orleans, LA. These teams will work with local governments, the private sector, and other institutions to leverage federal dollars and support the work being done at the local level to encourage economic growth and community development.

Additionally, communities nationwide will be eligible to compete for comprehensive economic planning assistance through a grant competition designed to spark local innovation. By integrating government investments and partnering with local communities, SC2 channels the resources of the federal government to help empower cities as they develop and implement their vision for economic growth.

The Wall Street Journal reports that federal officials from HUD, Labor, Commerce, Transportation, and the Small Business Administration will be “deployed” to the cities. In other words, the Obama administration wants to send bureaucrats from federal agencies that are notorious for wasting other people’s money to help local bureaucrats do a more “efficient” job of spending other people’s money. That’s like asking Anthony Weiner to fix your Twitter account.

A couple of the cities chosen by the administration are ironic. Seriously, hasn’t the federal government done enough to New Orleans already? Detroit is an example of why decades of federal subsidies to urban centers in decline have been a failure. As I note in a Cato essay on HUD community development subsidies, of which Detroit has been the fifth largest recipient since 2000, federal handouts create a disincentive for local officials to pursue sound policy reforms:

Despite all the abuses, perhaps policymakers believe that Community Development Block Grants are nonetheless effective at stimulating growth. After 30 years and more than $100 billion it should be easy to demonstrate the program’s success, but it’s hard to find any examples of city rejuvenation created by the program. Instead, numerous cities, such as Detroit, which have been major CDBG recipients, have fallen further into decline. The reality is that no amount of federal money can overcome the local hurdles to growth in cities such as Detroit—including political corruption and destructive tax and regulatory policies. Indeed, just like international development aid, federal aid to the cities likely increases corruption and stalls much-needed local reforms.

Some people will view this initiative as a crass effort to shore up urban support for the president’s reelection campaign. There’s probably a good bit of truth to that criticism. But both parties have been using subsidies to state and local government to curry political support for decades. Therefore, Republicans who raise a stink over the administration’s initiative should be prepared to work for the involved programs to be abolished. Otherwise, the complaints will amount to little more than political hot air.

See this Cato essay for more on federal subsidies to state and local government.

Breastfeeding and the Government

The media is reporting on a new study that finds long-term benefits to kids of breastfeeding.

Yet if health experts agree on the advantages of breastfeeding, why does the federal government subsidize mothers to use formula through the $7 billion Women, Infants, and Children program?

The WIC program is run by the Department of Agriculture, which summarized the subsidies as follows (page 1):

…infants participating in WIC consume about 54 percent of all formula sold in the United States. In most states, WIC participants use food vouchers or food checks to purchase their infant formula, free of charge, at participating retail grocery stores.

It’s true that in addition to handing out free formula, WIC administrators counsel women on the advantages of breastfeeding. But the counseling apparently isn’t working if WIC infants consume more than half of all formula. I am told that breastfeeding isn’t easy, so if you give moms a free alternative, many of them take it.

This is one of many examples we see of the government’s right hand working against its left. The Army Corps of Engineers destroys wetlands, while other federal agencies protect them. Milk and sugar programs push up food prices, while other programs subsidize food costs. Politicians complain about energy companies gouging consumers, yet federal ethanol policies push up energy costs.

The winners in each case are the political class – high-paid government administrators, members of Congress, and the groups hooked on federal subsidies. The losers are the rest of us – average taxpayers and consumers.

For more on federal food subsidies, see here.

Higher Education Subsidies Wasted

A study from the American Institutes of Research finds that federal and state governments have wasted billions of dollars on subsidies for students who didn’t make it past their first year in college. The federal total for first-year college drop outs was $1.5 billion from 2003 to 2008.

Due to data limitations, the figures are only for first year, full-time students at four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges have even higher drop-out rates, and part-time students or students returning to college are more likely to drop out. Therefore, the numbers in the report are “only a fraction of the total costs of first-year attrition the nation and the states face.” Moreover, it doesn’t include the cost for students who drop out some time after their sophomore year.

Federal policymakers from both parties are fond of lavishing subsidies on college students. Proponents argue that without federal subsidies, an insufficient number of future workers will possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.

However, a Cato essay on federal higher education subsidies argues that students wishing to attend college already have plenty of incentive to save or borrow from private sources:

Supporters of student aid subsidies argue that higher education is a “public good” that would be underprovided in a free market. However, that is probably not the case. People have a strong incentive to invest in their own education because it will lead to higher earnings. Those with a college degree will earn, on average, 75 percent more during their lifetime than those with just high-school degrees. That is a big incentive for people to save or borrow in private markets to pay for their own college costs. There is no “market failure” here.

In fact, higher education subsidies drive up tuition prices:

It is matter of supply and demand. More and more Americans have sought a college education, which has pushed prices higher. Ordinarily, such upward pressure would be restrained by consumers’ willingness and ability to pay, but as government subsidies have helped absorb tuition increases, the public’s budget constraint has been lifted. Peter Wood, a professor at Boston University noted that federal subsidies “are seen by colleges and universities as money that is there for the taking … tuition is set high enough to capture those funds and whatever else we think can be extracted from parents.”

But isn’t it great that Uncle Sam is helping put more young folks in college? Not necessarily:

Many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. As evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work. Further evidence of the problem is that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported that from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, college grade point averages grew steadily but Scholastic Aptitude Test scores declined. The share of entering college students who complete degrees has also fallen over the decades. In addition, while college attendance is up, overall adult literacy has barely budged over the last 15 years.

The essay also notes that college students devote 3.2 hours to education on an average weekday, versus 3.9 hours to “leisure and sports,” and that the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students is only about 56 percent, indicating that many students are not very serious about education.

Just as housing subsidies incentivized people to purchase homes that they otherwise shouldn’t have, higher education subsidies have incentivized people to go to college who weren’t ready or suited for it. In both cases, the cost to taxpayers has been substantial while the alleged benefits have proven illusory.