Tag: free markets

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.

Who I’m Not Voting For

It’s that time of year again, when friends start telling me about this or that candidate I should support because he or she is a dedicated defender of liberty and limited government. I’m a political junkie, so I love getting these recommendations. But I don’t end up supporting or contributing to many candidates. In my view, it’s not enough for a candidate to say that he’s ”committed to slashing wasteful spending, providing tax relief, and eliminating red tape.” What’s your actual tax plan? What spending do you propose to cut or eliminate? Not many of them offer clear answers to that.

And liberty involves more than just economics. Often I’m told, “Congressman X is a libertarian.” I always check, and then I say, “He voted for the war, the Patriot Act, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. Sounds like a conservative.” Now a conservative who opposed President George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar spending increase, his Medicare expansion, and his stepped-up federal involvement in education is a lot better than your average member of Congress. But those votes do not a libertarian make.

This year I’m looking for candidates who stand for freedom across the board, who want government constrained by the Constitution, who believe in the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.

And that means I don’t want to back candidates who support

  • the war in Iraq
  • the war in Afghanistan
  • war with Iran
  • the war on drugs
  • the constitutional amendment to override state marriage laws and make gay people second-class citizens
  • the president’s power to snatch American citizens off the street and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge
  • new restrictions on immigration

So don’t everybody write at once. But I’ll be looking out for political candidates who support liberty and limited government across a wide range of issues.

When they Give You “Anti-Lemons”…

On Tuesday, I criticized a new economic modeling paper (“Anti-Lemons”) purporting to show that unfettered education markets are bad and that government can fix them with the right regulations.

Andrew Gillen comes to the study’s defense, and I’m delighted that he’s taken the trouble to reflect on it rather than just saying “I like it.” But there are problems with his analysis. First, he faults me for dismissing the “Anti-Lemons” models for being based on false assumptions, citing Paul Krugman:

I am a strong believer in the importance of models, which are to our minds what spear-throwers were to stone age arms: they greatly extend the power and range of our insight. In particular, I have no sympathy for those people who criticize the unrealistic simplifications of model-builders.

Even if we put aside the fact that Paul Krugman is at times less reliable than the Daily Show website, there is an important difference between assumptions that are “unrealistically simplified” and those that are patently wrong. With the former, your model might still huck its intellectual spear somewhere in the general vicinity of the truth, with the latter, you’re just going to put your eye out.

“Anti-Lemons” is in the put-your-eye-out camp. Among other things, it assumes the productivity of all schools is equal. This is both totally false and highly germane – efficiency varies dramatically among schools, and private schools as a whole are consistently more efficient than government schools (as we will see below). Failing to recognize that reality will lead to incorrect results from the model, and this is just one of the false assumptions the paper adopts (see my previous post for others).

Second, Gillen writes that

going by Coulson’s numbers in figure 2 here, we would expect to find a positive impact of markets over government on achievement in slightly less than 2 out of 3 studies (with insignificant findings making up the majority of the others). If the case for free markets over government schools is really so clear cut (and I lean strongly in this direction), than why isn’t this 3 out of 3?

There are many plausible reasons for this result (lack of statistical power, omitted variable bias, other misspecification errors, etc.), but one is particularly worth raising here: government schools in many parts of the world spend several times as much per pupil as their private sector counterparts. This is true in most developing countries, from which a great deal of the inter-sectoral research hails. And when I looked at statewide data from Arizona in 2006 I found that government schools spend roughly 50 percent more than private schools. While it’s true that government school outcomes tend not to improve much as spending rises, the same cannot be said of private schools.

If this is true, you might ask, then wouldn’t the inter-sectoral research on school efficiency be more stark than the research on achievement (that fails to take spending levels into account)? The answer is yes. In fact, if you examine the efficiency bar in the same figure 2 cited by Gillen above, you will see that every single one of the efficiency comparisons between market and monopoly schools is significant and favors the market schools.

So, not only is the “Anti-Lemons” model useless, it is worse than useless: it seems to mislead even intelligent readers into believing that there is some mystery in the literature that needs to be solved by blindly waiving a spear around.

“Anti-Lemons” is neither Camelot, as I said yesterday, nor is it Sparta as Andrew implied. It’s the kid from Christmas Story who nearly puts his eye out by the cavalier application of a potentially powerful tool.

Tea Party Conservatism and the GOP

This morning, Politico’s Arena asks:

Is Tea Party conservatism a help or a hazard for Republicans seeking a return to power?

My response:

Let’s start with some clarity:  “Tea Party conservatism” stands for several things, but it is not the caricature one often finds in the mainstream media, to say nothing of the left wing blogs.  It is a movement with deep historical roots, drawing its name and inspiration from the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  As with that event, taxes brought it to the fore – on Tax Day, April 15.  But taxes are simply the most obvious manifestation of modern government run amok, insinuating itself into every corner of life.  Trillions of dollars of debt for our children, out-of-control government budgets, massive interventions in private affairs – the list of wrongs is endless, and under Obama has exploded.  He stands for nothing if not for making us all dependent on the government he has promised us.  That’s not America.  That’s a foreign vision, which over the centuries countless millions have fled, searching for freedom.

To be sure, the Tea Party movement has its fringe elements, as did the revolt against British tyranny, which the establishment of its day disparaged.  So too does the Obama administration, some of whom have already resigned.  The basic question, however, is what does the movement stand for?  What are its principles?  And on that, the contrast with the Obama vision is stark:  However much confusion there might be on specific issues, which is to be expected, the broad principles are clear.  The Tea Party movement stands for limited constitutional government.  At its rallies, on hand-written sign after sign, that was the message repeatedly seen.  These are ordinary Americans – Republicans, Independents, and even Democrats – who want simply to be left alone to plan and live their own lives.  They don’t want “community organizers” to help empower them to get more from government.

But they do need to be organized to bring that about – to get government off their backs.  And the Republican Party should be the natural vehicle toward that end – the party, after all, that was formed to get government off the backs of several million slaves.  But today’s Republican Party is a mixed lot:  Some understand those principles; but others, as in the NY 23 race, are all but indistinguishable from their counterparts in the party of Obama.  The problem in NY 23 was not that a third party entered the race.  Rather, the party establishment botched things from the beginning, by picking a nominee who properly belonged in the Democratic Party, as her pathetic last-minute endorsement indicated, and that’s why a third party entered the race – with a novice of a nominee who nearly won despite the odds against him.

The question, therefore, is not whether Tea Party conservatism is a help or a hazard for Republicans seeking a return to power?  To the contrary, it is whether the Republican Party is a help or a hindrance to the Tea Party movement?  It will be a help only if it returns to its roots.  The mainstream media, overwhelmingly of the Democratic persuasion, will continue to push Republicans to be “moderate,” of course – meaning “Democrat Lite” – to which the proper response is:  Why would voters go for that when they can get the real thing on the Democratic line?  If Tuesday’s returns showed anything, it is that Independents, a truly mixed lot, are up for grabs; but at the same time, they are looking for leaders who promise not simply to “solve problems” but to do so in a way that respects our traditions of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.  When Republican candidates stand clearly and firmly for those principles, they stand a far better chance of being elected than when they temporize.  That is the lesson that Republicans must grasp – and not forget – if they are to return to power.

What Is Regulation?

The New York Times tries to spin the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson as not anti-regulation:

Neither Ms. Ostrom nor Mr. Williamson has argued against regulation. Quite the contrary, their work found that people in business adopt for themselves numerous forms of regulation and rules of behavior — called “governance” in economic jargon — doing so independently of government or without being told to do so by corporate bosses.

But none of us “anti-regulation” folks are against “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” The world is full of rules, from wearing clothes in the office to customary trade practices to the rules for managing common-pool resources that Ostrom studied. Anyone who opposed such “forms of regulation” wouldn’t be a libertarian or even an anarchist – he’d be a nihilist. (Of course, one could sensibly oppose particular rules; but no one seriously wants a world without rules of behavior.)

David Henderson analyzes one of the misunderstandings about the laureates’ findings:

Some have summarized their work by saying that institutions other than free markets often work well. But that statement can mislead you to conclude that government solutions are the answer. Free markets are only a subset of free institutions. A better way to sum up their work is that what Ms. Ostrom and Mr. Willamson really show is that voluntary associations work.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics defines “regulation” this way: “Regulation consists of requirements the government imposes on private firms and individuals to achieve government’s purposes.” That’s the kind of regulation that is controversial among economists and often criticized by libertarians. It is entirely different from “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” Those sorts of rules – often called “governance,” as the New York Times notes – are private and voluntary, made by the voluntary interactions of a few or many people.

The work of Ostrom and Williamson supports the idea of spontaneous order, an order that emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not through the commands of government. Spontaneous order can be hard to grasp, though it is the background of our entire world – language, common law, money, and the economy are all spontaneous orders (though government has intruded into some of those orders). It’s misleading to say that work of Ostrom and Williamson is somehow supportive of “regulation,” given the way that word is commonly used.

Sheldon Richman made a similar point back in June and wrote a Facebook note on the same paragraph that caught my eye.

Throwdown with Charles Murray

In a response to my post this morning, Charles Murray remains unconvinced that changes to our school system could result in dramatic improvements in educational outcomes.

He asks to see the scholarly study showing that a school has miraculously boosted achievement above the norm. In one way, this hurdle is too low, and in another it’s too high.

If we could only point to a single study of a single school, it wouldn’t instill much confidence in the generalizability of the phenomenon. A consistent pattern of scholarly results is necessary for that. On the other hand, asking for “miraculous” improvement is a needlessly high standard. My disagreement is with Murray’s earlier, lower threshold claim that:  “reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

Let’s call a marginal improvement an increase of less than .15  standard deviations above the current mean (typically considered a “small” effect in the social sciences). Taking that as our litmus test, is there a consistent pattern of scholarly evidence that better school system design can boost achievement by more than .15 standard deviations? Yes.

education markets v monopolies -- coulson

That pattern is presented in the figure above, drawn from my recent review of the global econometric literature comparing educational outcomes across different types of school systems. The figure relates the number of statistically significant findings favoring free education markets over state school monopolies (in white), significant findings of the reverse (in light grey), and insignificant findings (in dark grey). Markets beat monopolies by a ratio of 15 significant findings to 1, across the seven educational measures for which data are available.

While a few of these findings have small effect sizes, many are above .15 standard deviations – some of them well above it. A paper by Tooley, Dixon, Bao, and Merrifield (under consideration by the journal Economics of Education Review), for instance, finds that in Nigeria private schools outscore public schools by double that amount, after controls, while “in Delhi and Hyderabad private unrecognized schools top state-run schools in math instruction by about 2/3 of a standard deviation.” A recent randomized assignment study of the DC voucher program finds that voucher students who’ve been in the program for three years are reading two grade levels ahead of their public school peers (.42 std deviations), though the average voucher is worth only a quarter of what DC spends per pupil on public k-12 education.

These are more than marginal improvements, and they are part of a consistent pattern. That pattern strongly suggests that moving from our current monopoly school system to a free and competitive education marketplace would shift the bell curve of academic achievement significantly to the right, raising the mean achievement substantially above its current level.

No one should be surprised by that. Imagine how far the bell curve for median income across modern nations would shift to the left if all free markets were supplanted with centrally planned monopolies such as have ruined the economies of Cuba, North Korea, and until recently many other nations.

Should You Vote on Keeping Your Local Car Dealership?

There are lots of reasons Washington should not bail out the automakers.  Whatever the justification for saving financial institutions – the “lifeblood” of the economy, etc., etc. – saving selected industrial enterprises is lemon socialism at its worst.  The idea that the federal government will be able to engineer an economic turnaround is, well, the sort of economic fantasy that unfortunately dominates Capitol Hill these days.

One obvious problem is that legislators now have a great excuse to micromanage the automakers.  And they have already started.  After all, if the taxpayers are providing subsidies, don’t they deserve to have dealerships, lots of dealerships, just down the street?  That’s what our Congresscritters seem to think.

Observes Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune:

The Edsel was one of the biggest flops in the history of car making. Introduced with great fanfare by Ford in 1958, it had terrible sales and was junked after only three years. But if Congress had been running Ford, the Edsel would still be on the market.

That became clear last week, when Democrats as well as Republicans expressed horror at the notion that bankrupt companies with plummeting sales would need fewer retail sales outlets. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., led the way, asserting, “I honestly don’t believe that companies should be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave it to local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves.”

Supporters of free markets can be grateful to Rockefeller for showing one more reason government shouldn’t rescue unsuccessful companies. As it happens, taxpayers are less likely to get their money back if the automakers are barred from paring dealerships. Protecting those dealers merely means putting someone else at risk, and that someone has been sleeping in your bed.

The Constitution guarantees West Virginia two senators, and Rockefeller seems to think it also guarantees the state a fixed supply of car sellers. “Chrysler is eliminating 40 percent of its dealerships in my state,” he fumed, “and I have heard that GM will eliminate more than 30 percent.” This development raises the ghastly prospect that “some consumers in West Virginia will have to travel much farther distances to get their cars serviced under warranty.”

Dealers were on hand to join the chorus. “To be arbitrarily closed with no compensation is wasteful and devastating,” said Russell Whatley, owner of a Chrysler outlet in Mineral Wells, Texas.

Lemon socialism mixed with pork barrel politics!  Could it get any worse?  Don’t ask: after all, this is Washington, D.C.