Tag: free markets

Pearlstein Wants Tough Trade Measures Against China…and the U.S.

Steven Pearlstein’s ready for the nuclear option.  With the conviction of a man who knows he won’t be held accountable for the consequences of his prescriptions, Pearlstein says the time has come for action against China.  Hopefully, those whose fingers are actually near the button will recognize Pearlstein’s suggestion for what it is: an outburst of frustration over what he considers China’s insubordination.

In his Washington Post business column yesterday, Pearlstein criticizes U.S. policymakers for blindly adhering to the view that China will inevitably transition to democratic capitalism, while they’ve excused market-distorting protectionism, mercantilism, and state dominance over the economy in China.  Pearlstein writes:

Up to now, a succession of administrations has argued against directly challenging China over its mercantilist policies, figuring it would be more effective in the long run to let the economic relationship grow deeper and give the Chinese the time and respect their culture demands to make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.

What we have discovered, however, is that the Chinese don’t view the transition as inevitable and that, in any case, they really aren’t much interested in relationships. If anything, they’ve proven to be relentlessly transactional. And their view of business and economics remains so thoroughly mercantilist that they not only can’t imagine any other way, but assume that everyone else thinks the way they do. To try to convince them otherwise is folly.

Pearlstein’s suggestion that the Chinese “aren’t much interested in relationships” strikes me as frustration over the fact that China is no longer a U.S. supplicant.  Perhaps the truth is that China isn’t much interested in a one-way relationship, where it is expected to meet all U.S. demands, while seeing its own wishes ignored.  Calling them “relentlessly transactional” is accusing them of naivety for missing the bigger picture, which, for Pearlstein, is that the U.S. is still top dog and China ignores that at its peril. 

Pearlstein is not the first columnist to criticize the Chinese government for putting its interests ahead of America’s (or, more accurately, putting what it believes to be its best interests ahead of what U.S. policymakers believe to be in their own interests).  In a recent Cato policy paper titled Manufacturing Discord: Growing Tensions Threaten the U.S.-China Economic Relationship, I was addressing opinion leaders who have staked out positions similar to Pearlstein’s when I wrote:

Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes….

One explanation for the change in tenor is that media pundits, policymakers, and other analysts are viewing the relationship through a prism that has been altered by the fact of a rapidly rising China.  That China emerged from the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession wealthier and on a virtually unchanged high-growth trajectory, while the United States faces slow growth, high unemployment, and a large debt (much of it owned by the Chinese), is breeding anxiety and changing perceptions of the relationship in both countries….

Of course, the U. S. is the larger economy and the chief designer of the still-prevailing global economic architecture.  But the implication that that distinction immunizes the U. S. from costly repercussions if U.S. sanctions were imposed against China is foolish.  But that’s exactly where Pearlstein’s going when he writes:

Getting this economic relationship back into balance is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world. The alternative is a return to living beyond our means, a further erosion of our industrial and technological base and a continued loss of ownership of business and financial assets.

By balancing the economic relationship, presumably Pearlstein is speaking about the need to reduce the bilateral trade deficit, which spurs a net outflow of dollars to China, some of which the Chinese lend back to Americans, who in turn can then buy more imports from China, and the cycle continues.  But to tip the scales in favor of the blunt force action he recommends later, Pearlstein characterizes Chinese investment in the United States as living beyond our means, losing ownership of “our” assets, and eroding our industrial and technological base.  That is a paternalistic and inaccurate characterization of the dynamics of capital inflows from China.

First, let’s remember that the Chinese aren’t holding a gun to the heads of the chairs of our congressional appropriations committees demanding that politicians borrow and spend more on senseless programs.  It’s absolutely priceless when spendthrift members of Congress, oblivious to the irony, blame the Chinese for having caused the U.S. financial crisis for providing cheap credit to fuel asset bubbles when it was their own profligacy that brought the Chinese to U.S. debt markets in the first place.  Stop deficit spending and the need to borrow from China (or anywhere else) goes away. 

Likewise, it is a sad commentary on the state of individual responsibility in the U.S. when a prominent business writer thinks the only way to keep consumers from living beyond their means is to deprive their would-be-creditors of capital.  It sounds a bit like the same tactics deployed in the U.S. War on Drugs.  Blame the suppliers.  The fact that U.S. savings rates have been rising for two years suggests that responsible Americans are interested in rebuilding their assets without need of such measures.

There are other destinations for capital inflows from China, which (despite Pearlstein’s disparaging allusions) should be entirely unobjectionable.  Chinese investment in U.S. corporate debt, equities markets, real estate markets, and direct investment in U.S. manufacturing and services industries does not erode our industrial and technological base.  It enhances it.  It does not constitute a loss of ownership of business and financial assets, but rather a mutual exchange of assets at an agreed price.  When Chinese investors compete as buyers in U.S. markets, the value of the assets in those markets rises, which benefits the owners of those assets when there is an exchange.  Chinese purchases of anything American, with the exception of debt, do not constitute claims on the future.  Accordingly, the economic relationship can achieve the much vaunted need for rebalancing without need of attempting to forcefully reduce the trade deficit by restraining imports.

Pearlstein continues:

So if the urgent need is to rebalance the global economy by rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, we are probably going to have to begin this process on our own. And that means establishing some sort of tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but other countries that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services. The proceeds of those tariffs should be used to encourage exports in some fashion…

This relationship, however, is one that must be actively managed by the two governments. It should be obvious by now that their government is rather effective at managing their end of things. It should be equally obvious that we cannot continue to rely on free markets to manage our end.

So Pearlstein comes full circle.  He wants the U. S. to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, subsidize U.S. exports, and institute top-down industrial policy.  In other words, he wants the U.S. to be more like China. 

Of course, I would argue, we already have something that encourages exports.  They’re called imports.  Over half of the value of U.S. imports are intermediate goods—capital equipment, components, raw materials—that are used by American-based producers to make goods for their customers in the U. S. and abroad.  Furthermore, foreigners need to be able to sell to Americans if they are going to have the dollars to buy products from Americans.  And finally, if the U.S. implements trade restrictions on China to compel currency revaluation or anything else, retaliation against U.S. exports is a given.

In short, imports are a determinant of exports.  If you impede imports, you impede exports.  So Pearlstein’s idea that we can somehow subsidize exports by taxing and reducing imports is not particularly well-considered.  And though it may be tempting to look at China’s economic success as an endorsement or vindication of industrial policy, it is difficult to discern how much of China’s growth can be attributed to central planning, and how much has happened despite it.  But in the U.S., where one of our unique and core strengths has been the relative dynamism that has produced more inventions, more patents, more actionable industrial ideas, more freeedom, and more wealth than at any other time in any other nation-state in the world, it would be imprudent bordering on reckless to suppress those synergies in the name of industrial policy.

In the end, I rather doubt that Pearlstein is truly on board with the course of action he suggests.  In response to a question presented to him on the Washington Post live web chat yesterday about how the Chinese would react if his proposal were implemented, Pearlstein wrote:

They’d make a huge stink. They’d cancel some contracts. They’d slap on some tariffs of their own. They’d launch an appeal with the World Trade Organization. It would not be costless to us – getting into fights never is. But after a year, once they saw we were serious, they would find a way to begin accomodating [sic] us in significant ways, and if we respond with a positive tit for tat, things could finally improve. They’ve been testing us for years and what they discovered was that we were easy to push around. So guess what – they pushed us around.

I’m willing to chalk up Pearlstein’s diatribe to pent-up frustration.  But let me end with this admonition from that May Cato paper:

 [I]ndignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.  China is a sovereign nation.  Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people).  Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous.  Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft.  These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.

“The Only Place Innovation Will Come From”

Yesterday, Bill Gates addressed 4,100 charter school leaders and activists and told them that their movement “is the only place innovation will come from.”

Certainly there are innovative charter schools–and others that deploy traditional methods with such skill and dedication as to achieve results far above the norm (think Ben Chavis’ American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland). But of course charters are not the only source of educational innovation, and, much more importantly, they are unlikely to drive the process of mass replication and scale-up of innovations responsible for the stunning economic progress of the past several hundred years.

Pick any field in which a brilliant innovation has been capitalized on and brought to the masses and you will likely find that it is capitalist–part of the profit-and-loss, free enterprise system.

There are occasional exceptions. The Jesuits introduced performance-based grouping in 1599, promoting students to the next grade whenever they had mastered the material of the current one, and managed to scale-up that policy internationally. But only free markets have created an ever-repeating cycle of innovation, replication, and dissemination that continues decade after decade, seldom pausing or reversing except due to some external calamity.

There are efforts afoot by business and financial leaders to emulate that cycle within the charter school framework. We should wish them well, but it’s a daunting task. As Friedrich Hayek explains in The Fatal Conceit, the web of freedoms, customs, and incentives we call free markets was not designed by earlier generations, but rather evolved inexorably over time. It is not a product of human planning, but of human nature.

Trying to reproduce the innovation, replication, dissemination cycle outside the free market system is like trying to make a wheel more round by increasing or decreasing the value of pi–and it’s just as unnecessary. We already have a system for accomplishing what Gates and the American public desire, why not use it? Why don’t we simply ensure that all children, regardless of family wealth, can afford access to a free education marketplace? The innovation and dissemination process will then take care of itself, as it does in every other field.

Business Roundtable: We Love/Hate Big Government

Regular readers of this blog know that big corporations often are enemies of free markets and individual liberty. So it is hardly suprising to know that the Business Roundtable, a lobby representing CEOs of major companies, supported the wasteful and ineffective stimulus program in 2009 and the bloated new health care entitlement in 2010. Big companies, after all, are quite proficient at working the system to obtain unearned wealth and to rig the rules against smaller competitors.
 
What is surprising, however, is that representatives of that organization now have the chutzpah to complain about a “hostile environment for investment and job creation.” Equally galling, the group has published a document called “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth.” We’ve all heard the joke about the guy who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. The Business Roundtable has adopted that strategy, except this time taxpayers are the butt of the joke. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

The chairman of the Business Roundtable, an association of top corporate executives that has been President Obama’s closest ally in the business community, accused the president and Democratic lawmakers Tuesday of creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.” Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability … to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.” …The final straw, said Roundtable president John Castellani, was the introduction of two pieces of legislation, now pending in Congress, that the group views as particularly bad for business. One, a provision of the administration’s financial regulation overhaul, would make it easier for shareholders to nominate corporate board members. The other would raise taxes on multinational corporations. The rhetoric accompanying the tax proposals has been particularly harsh, Castellani said, with Democrats vowing to campaign in this fall’s midterm elections on a platform of punishing companies that move jobs overseas. …Seidenberg polled the members of the Business Roundtable and a sister organization, the Business Council. The result was a 54-page document, delivered to Orszag on Monday, chock full of bullet points about actions taken or considered by a wide array of executive agencies, including the White House Middle Class Task Force and the Food and Drug Administration. We believe the cumulative effect of these proposals will help defeat the objectives we all share – reducing unemployment, improving the competitiveness of U.S. companies and creating an environment that fosters long-term economic growth,” Seidenberg wrote in a cover letter for the document, titled “Policy Burdens Inhibiting Economic Growth.”

President Obama’s Poor Understanding of Voluntary Exchange

As explained in an excellent letter to the editor of The Washington Post:

Capitalism’s friends never had to cede moral ground to its enemies, but they will have to replace the current power structure to make room for a revival. President Obama summarized his understanding of free enterprise in his 2009 commencement speech at Arizona State University: “ruthless competition pursued only on your own behalf…”

That markets are built on voluntary transactions – mutual exchange for mutual benefit – is an alien concept in the academic environment that produced Mr. Obama and many of his staffers. That one accumulates wealth in a free market by providing value to willing buyers – the exact opposite of acting “only on your own behalf” – is another idea unlikely to penetrate the zero-sum mentality that dominates this administration.

The author is one Michael Smith of Cynthiana, Kentucky, a gifted and prolific letter-to-the-editor-writer.

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

Let’s Get Serious about Immigration Reform

The controversy over America’s immigration policy does not allow for easy answers, as the post below by Roger Pilon demonstrates. Even among those of us who advocate limited government and free markets, there is room for debate about what our immigration policy should be and the order in which needed reforms should be pursued.

Roger gives a welcome nod to the argument for “a serious guest-worker program,” which I’ve argued is essential to any successful reform effort. He also acknowledges that its implementation should be in concert with serious enforcement rather than delayed indefinitely by demands that we “control the border first.”

One place where I differ with my dear colleague is in his assertion that: “We no longer control our southern border, and Congress seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it.”

I’m not sure there ever was a time, at least in recent decades, that the U.S. government exerted “control” over the southern border in the sense that illegal entry was largely prevented. Sealing a 2,000-mile border remains a daunting challenge to those who advocate it.

If anything, our border with Mexico is more under control today than at any time in recent years. According to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Department of Homeland Security, the number of people living in the United States illegally has dropped by more than 1 million in the past two years. That strongly implies that the net inflow of illegal immigrants across the border has declined sharply.

The main reason for the drop in net illegal immigration is probably the recession, but increased enforcement has arguably played a role as well. According to a recent paper by Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda of UCLA, the federal government has dramatically increased the resources it spends to “control the border.”

Consider: The U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has shot up by 714 percent since 1992, from $326 million to $2.7 billion. During the same period, the number of Border Patrol agents stationed along the southwest border has grown from 3,555 to 17,415. Hundreds of miles of fencing has been constructed along the border, much of it across private property.

If this is the mark of a government “unwilling to do anything,” I would shudder at the cost and intrusion of a more concerted effort.

The bottom line is that our “enforcement only” approach to controlling the border has failed, and it will continue to fail until we create a legal alternative to illegal immigration.

Atomic Dreams

Last week I was on John Stossel’s (most excellent) new show on Fox Business News to discuss energy policy – in particular, popular myths that Republicans have about energy markets.  One of the topics I touched upon was nuclear power.  My argument was the same that I have offered in print: Nuclear power is a swell technology but, given the high construction costs associated with building nuclear reactors, it’s a technology that cannot compete in free markets without a massive amount of government support.  If one believes in free markets, then one should look askance at such policies. 

As expected, the atomic cult has taken offense. 

Now, it is reasonable to argue that excessive regulatory oversight has driven up the cost of nuclear power and that a “better” regulatory regime would reduce costs.  Perhaps.  But I have yet to see any concrete accounting of exactly which regulations are “bad” along with associated price tags for the same.  If anyone out there in Internet-land has access to a good, credible accounting like that, please, send it my way.  But until I see something tangible, what we have here is assertion masquerading as fact.

Most of those who consider themselves “pro-nuke” are unaware of the fact that the current federal regulatory regime was thoroughly reformed in the late 1990s to comport with the industry’s model of what a “good” federal regulatory regime would look like.  As Oliver Kingsley Jr., the President of Exelon Nuclear, put it in Senate testimony back in 2001:

The current regulatory environment has become more stable, timely, and predictable, and is an important contributor to improved performance of nuclear plants in the United States.  This means that operators can focus more on achieving operational efficiencies and regulators can focus more on issues of safety significance.  It is important to note that safety is being maintained and, in fact enhanced, as these benefits of regulatory reform are being realized.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission – and this Subcommittee – can claim a number of successes in their efforts to improve the nuclear regulatory environment.  These include successful implementation of the NRC Reactor Oversight Process, the timely extension of operating licenses at Calvert Cliffs and Oconee, the establishment of a one-step licensing process for advanced reactors, the streamlining of the license transfer process, and the increased efficiency in processing licensing actions.

It’s certainly possible that the industry left some desirable reforms undone, but it seems relevant to me that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association for the nuclear energy industry and a fervent supporter of all these government assistance programs – does not complain that they’re being unfairly hammered by costly red-tape.

For the most part, however, the push-back against the arguments I offered last week has little to do with this.  It has to do with bias.  According to a post by Rod Adams over at “Atomic Insights Blog,” I am guilty of ignoring subsidies doled-out to nuclear’s biggest competitor – natural gas – and because Cato gets money from Koch Industries, it’s clear that my convenient neglect of that matter is part of a corporate-funded attack on nuclear power.  Indeed, Mr. Adams claims that he has unearthed a “smoking gun” with this observation.

Normally, I would ignore attacks like this.  This particular post, however, offers the proverbial “teachable moment” that should not be allowed to go to waste.

First, let’s look at the substance of the argument.  Did I “give natural gas a pass” as Mr. Adams contends? Well, yes and no; the show was about the cost of nuclear power, not the cost of natural gas.  I did note that natural gas-fired electricity was more attractive in this economic environment than nuclear power, something that happens to be true.  Had John Stossel asked me about whether gas’ economic advantage was due to subsidy, I would have told him that I am against natural gas subsidies as well – a position I have staked-out time and time again in other venues (while there are plenty of examples, this piece I co-authored with Daniel Becker – then of the Sierra Club – for The Los Angeles Times represents my thinking on energy subsidies across the board.  A blog post a while back about the Democratic assault on oil and gas subsidies found me arguing that the D’s should actually go further!  Dozens of other similar arguments against fossil fuel subsidies can be found on my publications page).  So let’s dispose of Mr. Adams’ implicit suggestion that I am some sort of tool for the oil and gas industry, arguing against subsidies here but not against subsidies there.

Second, let’s consider the implicit assertion that Mr. Adams makes – that natural gas-fired electricity is more attractive than nuclear power primarily because of subsidy.  The most recent and thorough assessment of this matter comes from Prof. Gilbert Metcalf, an economist at Tufts University.  Prof. Metcalf agrees with a 2004 report from the Energy Information Administration which contended that preferences for natural gas production in the tax code do little to increase natural gas production and thus do little to make natural gas less expensive than it might otherwise be.  They are wealth transfers for sure, but they do not do much to change natural gas supply or demand curves and thus do not affect consumer prices.  Prof. Metcalf argues that if we had truly level regulatory playing field without any tax distortions, natural gas-fired electricity would actually go down, not up!  Government intervention in energy markets does indeed distort gas-fired electricity prices.  It makes those prices higher than they otherwise would be!

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) identified five natural gas subsidies in 2007 that were relevant to the electricity sector (table 5).  Only two are of particular consequence.  They are:

  • Expensing of Exploration and Development Costs – Gas producers are allowed to expense exploration and development expenditures rather than capitalize and depreciate those costs over time.  Oil and gas producers (combined) took advantage of this tax break to the tune of $860 million per year.  How much goes to gas production rather than to oil production is unclear.
  • Excess of Percentage over Cost Depletion Deferral – Under cost depletion, producers are allowed to make an annual deduction equal to the non-recovered cost of acquisition and development of the resource times the proportion of the resource removed that year.  Under percentage depletion, producers deduct a percentage of gross income from resource production.  Oil and gas producers (combined) take advantage of this tax break to the tune of $790 million per year.  How much goes to gas production rather than to oil production is unclear. 

Even if we put aside the fact that these subsidies don’t impact final consumer prices in any significant manner, it’s useful to keep in mind the fact that the subsidy per unit of gas-fired electricity production – as calculated by EIA – works out to 25 cents per megawatt hour (table 35).  Subsidy per unit of nuclear-fired electricity production works out to $1.59 per megawatt hour.  Hence, the argument that nuclear subsidies are relatively small in comparison with natural gas subsidies is simply incorrect.

Some would argue that the Foreign Tax Credit – a generally applicable credit available to corporations doing business overseas that allows firms to treat royalty payments to foreign governments as a tax that can be deducted from domestic corporate income taxes – should likewise be on the subsidy list.  The Environmental Law Institute calculates that this credit saves the fossil fuel industry an additional $15.3 billion.  There is room for debate about the wisdom of that credit, but regardless, it doesn’t appear as if the Foreign Tax Credit affects domestic U.S. prices for gas-fired electricity.     

The bigger point is that without government help, few doubt that the natural gas industry would still be humming and electricity would still be produced in large quantities from gas-fired generators.  But without government production subsidies, without loan guarantees, and without liability protection via the Price-Anderson Act, even the nuclear power industry concedes that they would disappear.

Now, to be fair, Prof. Metcalf reports that nuclear power is cheaper than gas-fired power under both current law and under a no-subsidy, no-tax regime.  His calculations, however, were made at a time when natural gas prices were at near historic highs that were thought to be the new norm in energy markets and were governed by fairly optimistic assumptions about nuclear power plant construction costs.  Those assumptions have not held-up well with time.  For a more recent assessment, see my review of this issue in Reasonalong with this study from MIT, which warns that if more government help isn’t forthcoming, “nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”

Third, Mr. Adams argues that federal nuclear loan guarantee program is a self-evidently good deal and implies that only an anti-industry agitprop specialist (like me) could possibly refuse to see that.  “That program, with its carefully designed and implemented due diligence requirements for project viability, should actually produce revenue for the government.”  Funny, but when private investors perform those due diligence exercises, they come to a very different conclusion … which is why we have a federal loan guarantee program in the first place. 

Who do you trust to watch over your money – investment bankers or Uncle Sam?  The former don’t have the best track record in the world these days, but note that the popular indictment of that crowd is that investment banks weren’t tight fisted enough when it came to lending.  If even these guys were saying no to nuclear power – and at a time when money was flowing free and easy – what makes Mr. Adams think that a bunch of politicians are right about the glorious promise of nuclear power, particularly given the “too cheap to meter” rhetoric we’ve heard from the political world now for the better part of five decades? 

Anyway, for what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office has taken a close look at this alleged bonanza for the taxpayer and judged the risk of default on these loan guarantees to be around 50 percent.  They may be wrong of course, but the risks are there, something Moody’s acknowledged last year in a published analysis warning that they were likely to downgrade the credit-worthiness of nuclear power plant construction loans.

Fourth and finally, Mr. Adams cites Cato’s skepticism about “end-is-near” climate alarmism as yet more evidence that we are on the take from the fossil fuels industry.  I don’t know if Mr. Adams has been following current events lately, but I would think that we’re looking pretty good right now on that front.  Der Spiegel – no hot-bed of “Big Oil” agitprop – sums up the state of the debate rather nicely in the wake of the ongoing collapse of IPCC credibility.  Matt Ridley – another former devotee of climate alarmism – likewise sifts through the rubble that is now the infamous Michael Mann “hockey stick” analysis (which allegedly demonstrated an unprecedented degree of warming in the 20th Century) and finds thorough and total rot at the heart of the alarmist argument.  Mr. Adams is perhaps unaware that our own Pat Michaels has been making these arguments for years and Cato has no apologies to make on that score. 

Regardless, ad hominem is the sign of a man running out of arguments.  There aren’t many here to rebut, but the form of the complaints offered by Mr. Adams speaks volumes about how little the pro-nuclear camp has to offer right now in defense of nuclear power subsidies.

I have no animus towards nuclear power per se.  If nuclear power could compete without government help, I would be as happy as Mr. Adams or the next MIT nuclear engineer.  But I am no more “pro” nuclear power than I am “pro” any power.  It is not for me to pick winners in the market place.  That’s the invisible hand’s job.  If there is bad regulation out there harming the industry, then by all means, let’s see a list of said bad regulations and amend them accordingly.  But once those regulations are amended (if there are indeed any that need amending), nuclear power should still be subject to an unbiased market test.  Unlike Mr. Adams, I don’t want to see that test rigged.