Tag: Matthew Yglesias

What’s a Conservatorship Good For?

A central reason that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have not played a bigger role in rescuing homeowners, or otherwise handing out “freebies,” is that these two companies are in conservatorship.

Conservatorship is almost like a bankruptcy proceeding, or a receivership in the banking context, but without the power to impose losses. I’ve been criticized for believing that a conservatorship requires Fannie’s regulator to “conserve” the company, and not simply allow it to be used as a slush fund. The basis of said criticism is that FHFA, Fannie’s regulator, has a broad public mission, which could include handing out freebies to underwater borrowers.

Matt Yglesias suggests that “clearly the purpose of creating the FHFA and taking Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship can’t have been to minimize direct taxpayer financial losses on agency debt.” Now, Matt makes a lot of Congress being vague in the statute. And he is correct about it being vague, in some areas, but it isn’t here.

As one of the two people (the other being Peggy Kuhn) who actually drafted that section of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) during my time as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I can clearly say the purpose of the drafters, in terms of conservatorship, was to nurse those companies back to health. Again, how do I know that? Because I was there.

Of course, if one simply read that section of the statute, Section 1145 of HERA, which amends Section 1367 of the 1992 GSE Act, one would clearly see what the purpose, duties, and role of a conservatorship actually is. For instance, what does the law say the powers of a conservatorship are? They are to ”take such action as may be—(i) necessary to put the regulated entity in a sound and solvent condition; and (ii) appropriate to carry on the business of the regulated entity and preserve and conserve the assets and property of the regulated entity.”

Now, I don’t see anything in there about handing out freebies to underwater borrowers. Citing an agency-written mission statement or a vague “purposes” at the beginning of an act is no substitute for actually reading the provisions of a statute.

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Subsidy, Either

I hit a nerve with my post, “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Tax Expenditure.”  To recap: The federal tax code has credits, deductions, exemptions, and exclusions that reduce tax revenue.  By convention, budget experts call that forgone revenue a “tax expenditure,” a “tax subsidy,” or even “backdoor spending in the tax code.”  This is incorrect.  To claim that forgone tax revenue is a government expenditure implies that the money at stake actually belongs to the government, which is graciously letting taxpayers keep it, rather than to the people who earned it.  Government is not spending that money; it is merely not extracting that money from the private sector.  Statists deliberately use terms like “tax expenditure” precisely because that erroneous impression obscures their efforts to raise your taxes.

Less than an hour after posting, Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund called me “daringly inaccurate.”  (Why be timid?)  The Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro devoted a very thoughtful 1,155 words to the topic at NRO.

Yglesias explains in an email:

I understand why you might want to object to the “tax expenditure” phrasing, but surely we can agree that there’s such a thing as a “tax subsidy,” right? If the government declares that fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now tax-deductible, that’s a subsidy to the makers and purchasers of Priuses.

I’m afraid I cannot agree to that.

  • The term “tax expenditure” is nonsense because not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not the same as spending the same amount of money on a Prius.  The outcome may be exactly the same.  But no one can spend money that he doesn’t possess.
  • The term “tax subsidy” is likewise nonsense because a subsidy involves giving something to someone else.  Not taking Peter’s money, conditional on Peter buying a Prius, is not a subsidy to Peter.  The government is not giving Peter anything.  Nor is it a subsidy to Paul, even though he profits from Prius sales: the government is not giving anything to Paul, either.  Again, the outcome may be exactly the same as a government subsidy.  Notably, Paul’s income rises.   Yet it does not rise because Paul received a subsidy.  Paul’s income rises because the state used coercion in a different way: to alter, for Peter, the cost of a Prius relative to other uses of Peter’s income.
  • To see the absurdity, consider what it would mean to eliminate a “tax subsidy.”  All else equal, eliminating an actual government subsidy reduces the tax burden.  Eliminating a “tax subsidy” increases someone’s tax burden.  Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

Barro makes more of our disagreement than actually exists.

  • We agree targeted tax preferences are harmful.  (I argue, for example, that the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance operates more like a tax hike than a tax break because, among other atrocities, it denies the typical parent control over $10,000 of her earnings.)
  • We agree they expand government power.
  • We agree government should account for them.  (Along those lines, the Congressional Budget Office has developed a concept it calls the “federal budgetary commitment to health care,” which is the sum of all federal health spending and all tax revenue forgone due to health-related tax loopholes.  The CBO calls them “tax expenditures” –  grrrr.  I dislike “budgetary commitment” for the same reason: the government can’t commit resources it doesn’t possess. But the CBO is on to something. We need an aggregate measure of “federal budgetary interference in the economy.”)
  • Finally, Barro and I probably agree that Congress should simultaneously eliminate all such loopholes and reduce marginal payroll- and income-tax rates – perhaps to zero.

I reject the term “tax expenditure” – as distinct from the concept – because it is nonsensical and biases the debate toward more government control of the economy and our lives.   Barro asks what term I’d prefer. Until someone comes up with something pithier than “tax revenue forgone due to targeted tax preferences,” I’ll stick with that.

Yglesias on High-Speed Rail

On November 1, the Washington Post published a devastating critique of high-speed rail written by journalist Robert Samuelson. In fewer than 800 words, Samuelson blows up just about all the arguments put forth in favor of rail. An 8-word summary: costs are too high and benefits too low.

One person who remains unconvinced is Matthew Yglesias, who dismisses most of Samuelson’s arguments because some of them resemble the work of a “car-subsidy shill,” namely me. Apparently, if you believe, as I do, that all modes of transportation should be paid for by users, and not by tax subsidies, then you, too, are a “car-subsidy shill.”

Yglesias did not even read Samuelson’s article, instead reading only a Cato-at-Liberty blog post by Tad DeHaven about that article. But after a mere three or four paragraphs of analysis, Yglesias somehow concludes that $1 trillion for high-speed rail is “a bargain.” His analysis, such as it is, comes down to two points. First, Randal O’Toole opposes high-speed rail, so therefore it must be a good thing. Second (pulling out his mortgage calculator), at 4.1 percent interest over 30 years, $1 trillion is really “only” $58 billion per year. “Let’s do it!” he concludes.

I’ve never met Yglesias, so he probably doesn’t know that I personally love trains and hate driving. But as an policy analyst, I have to put my personal preferences aside and ask a couple of questions that never seem to occur to Yglesias. First, what are the benefits? Second, what do you have to give up to pay the costs?

The answer to the first question is: negligible. High-speed trains will carry less than 10 percent of the number of passenger miles carried by the Interstate Highway System (all the cost of which was paid out of user fees), and virtually no freight (interstate highways not only carry 20 percent of all passenger miles but about 15 percent of all freight ton-miles in the United States).

The history of transportation shows that new technologies succeed when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than existing technologies. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and (based on Amtrak’s Acela) at least five times more expensive than either. That means, as Samuelson says, “High-speed rail would subsidize a tiny group of travelers and do little else.”

Moreover, really successful new transportation technologies significantly increase mobility. Yet Florida predicts that only 4 percent (see p. 13) of the riders on its 168-mph trains would be new mobility. California’s 220-mph trains would create even less new mobility: the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest estimate predicts that less than 1 percent (see p. 9) of its ridership would be new mobility. Here’s an arithmetic lesson for Yglesias: something that creates almost no new mobility, and merely substitutes high-cost transportation for a few marginal travelers previously using low-cost modes, is not a good deal.

Nor is high-speed rail the environmental answer to anything. The environmental costs of construction are high, while the environmental benefits of operations are low, leading Florida to conclude in its environmental impact statement that “the environmentally preferred alternative is the no build alternative” (see p. 2-38). In fact, both cars and airplanes are becoming more energy efficient so rapidly that, by the time a national high-speed rail system could be built, rail would be the brown form of passenger travel.

On the cost side, Yglesias only asks whether my $1 trillion estimate, which is “based on the costs estimates of the California system,” is valid considering that “California is an above-average cost jurisdiction.” That’s a legitimate question that would have been answered if he had bothered to read the footnoted reference. (I divided routes into low-cost and high-cost lines and used different estimates for each.)

Samuelson’s cost estimate was only $200 billion, but that was for high-speed rail in California and Florida and moderate-speed rail (90- to 110-mph) everywhere else. The $1 trillion is for a true national network of high-speed (150-220-mph) rail. I was not the first to use a $1 trillion estimate; that was Matt Rose, the CEO of the BNSF Railway, who probably knows a little more about rail costs than either Yglesias or me.

Beyond that, how could anyone conclude that $58 billion per year is a low price for anything, especially in today’s economy? Where is this money going to come from? Not the states, most of which are financially strapped. Perhaps we could cut all other federal spending on surface transportation–but that was only $54 billion in 2009. I know: let’s pass a health care law that will save money. But we already did that, and now federal health-care costs are projected to rise by, coincidentally, $58 billion between 2009 and 2011. Darn–there goes the money for high-speed rail. (All these numbers are from page 69 of the 2011 federal budget historical tables.)

High-speed rail riders aren’t going to pay $59 billion per year–they won’t even pay the operating costs of high-speed rail on most routes, which Yglesias managed to ignore. Amtrak claims its Acela trains earn a profit (not counting capital costs), but the Acela shares a lot of its operating costs with other Boston-to-Washington trains, which lose money. Between the two of them, they barely broke even in 2009 (see p. C-1). No other high-speed rail route in this country is likely to do as well.

By the way, in order to break even on Boston-to-Washington trains, Amtrak charged Acela riders 72 cents per passenger mile. That’s more than five times the average fares charged by airlines and intercity bus companies. Fares on Amtrak’s low-speed trains are only twice air and bus fares, which I am sure Yglesias thinks is a bargain.

I don’t know why Matt Yglesias thinks spending $1 trillion on trains that only a few people will ride would be a bargain. But I have no doubt that high-speed rail would be a high-cost burden on taxpayers.

Why Are Statists so Sensitive About Cuba?

I touched a raw nerve with my post about Fidel Castro admitting that the Cuban model is a failure. Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong both attacked me. DeLong’s post was nothing more than a link to the Yglesias post with a snarky comment about “why can’t we have better think tanks?” Yglesias, to his credit, tried to explain his objections.

This leads Daniel Mitchell to post the following chart which he deems “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.”…this mostly illustrates the difficulty of having a rational conversation with Cato Institute employees about economic policy in the developed world. Cuba is poor, but it’s much richer than Somalia. Is Somalia’s poor performance an illustration of the human costs of inadequate taxation? Or maybe we can act like reasonable people and note that these illustrations of the cost of Communist dictatorship and anarchy have little bearing on the optimal location on the Korea-Sweden axis of mixed economies?

I’m actually not sure what argument Yglesias is making, but I think he assumed I was focusing only on fiscal policy when I commented about Cuba’s failure being “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.” At least I think this is what he means, because he then tries to use Somalia as an example of limited government, solely because the government there is so dysfunctional that it is unable to maintain a working tax system.

Regardless of what he’s really trying to say, my post was about the consequences of excessive government, not just the consequences of excessive government spending. I’m not a fan of high taxes and wasteful spending, to be sure, but fiscal policy is only one of many policies that influence economic performance. Indeed, according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, taxes and spending are only 20 percent of a nation’s grade. So nations such as Sweden and Denmark are ranked very high because the adverse impact of their fiscal policies is more than offset by their very laissez-faire policies in just about all other areas. Likewise, many nations in the developing world have modest fiscal burdens, but their overall scores are low because they get poor grades on variables such as monetary policy, regulation, trade, rule of law, and property rights. This video has more details.

So, yes, Cuba is an example of “the human cost of excessive government.” And so is Somalia.

Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, are both good and bad examples. Optimists can cite them as great examples of the benefits of laissez-faire markets. Pessimists can cite them as unfortunate examples of bloated public sectors.

P.S. Castro has since tried to recant, claiming he was misquoted. He’s finding out, though, that it’s not easy putting toothpaste back in the tube.

Failures in Ed. Policy Analysis—Misunderstanding Milwaukee

To the extent education policy commentary actually affects policy, it has the potential to do great good or great harm. Several recent commentaries in this field fall into the latter camp, and it’s important to understand why – so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.

The one I’ll discuss here is this blog post by Matthew Yglesias, in which he draws broad conclusions about the functioning of education markets from a recent study of a tiny school choice program in Milwaukee as well as from some older unspecified research [for the latter, Yglesias linked here, but the body of that page doesn’t discuss school choice]. The Milwaukee study is part of a vast literature. Over the past quarter century at least sixty-five studies have compared outcomes in public and private schools around the world, reporting 156 separate statistical findings.

The evidence of this literature is starkly one-sided. The vast preponderance of findings show private schools outperforming public schools after all the normal controls. What’s more, when we focus on the research comparing truly market-like systems to state-run school monopolies, the market advantage is found to be even more dramatic (see Figure 2 in the paper linked above). To draw policy opinions from a small, selective handful of those studies while ignoring the rest is policy malpractice, and it is dangerous to children.

Even the recent Milwaukee result described by Yglesias as a failure shows voucher students in private schools performing as well as public school students who receive roughly 50% more government funding. How is a program that produces similar academic results to the status quo at a much lower cost to taxpayers a failure? And what of the research suggesting that students in the Milwaukee voucher program graduate at higher rates than those in public schools?

More importantly from a long term policy perspective, how is a program limited to 20,000 or so children in a single city, being served almost entirely by non-profit entities, a test of market education? Would Apple have spent hundreds of millions developing the iPhone or the iPad if its market were limited to the same customer base? Of course not. The dynamism, diversity and innovation we have come to expect from competitive markets in other fields relies on the prospect of ultimately scaling up to serve mass audiences. Without the prospect of a large-scale return on investment, there is no incentive to invest in the first place.

Yglesias, Defending Klein’s Slander of Lieberman

Blogger Matthew Yglesias has a response to my post on Ezra Klein’s slander that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) is okay with the mass murder (or the mass negligent homicide) of hundreds of thousands of uninsured Americans.

Yglesias claims that only one of the three studies I cited speaks to what he claims is the central point: the Institute of Medicine’s estimate of how many Americans die each year because they lack health insurance.  Yglesias is incorrect.  The central point/threshold question is whether giving the uninsured health insurance will save lives.  All three studies speak to that point, and all three all cast doubt on the intuitively appealing idea that giving uninsured people health insurance ipso facto saves lives.

To rebut the one study that Yglesias believes to be on point (Kronick), he offers two others.  Yet all studies are not created equal.  Kronick, Finkelstein/McKnight, and Levy/Meltzer represent the most reliable work that has been done on the relationship between health insurance and health.  If I am wrong about that, I hope that one of those authors or another expert in the field will correct me.

But if I am right, it means that Yglesias and Klein are slandering Joe Lieberman and millions of others based on their (Yglesias’ and Klein’s) limited and distorted understanding of the world.  (And even if I’m wrong, the Washington Post’s Charles Lane explains why Klein’s slander is still wrong.)

Then again, considering that Yglesias also has another post suggesting that Lieberman and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are “dumb” Jews free-riding on the intelligence of other Jews, I’m not sure that the Church of Universal Coverage is open to persuasion right now.

Response to Matthew Yglesias re: Uncle Sam’s $4 Million Bike Rack

In response to my criticism of the new federally-financed $4 million bike center set to open at Union Station in Washington, DC, Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias says:

I look forward to the day when the Cato Institute does a blog post denouncing each and every publicly financed parking lot or garage in the United States of America.

I’ll take that bait…sort of…

I denounce each and every federally financed parking lot or garage in the United States of America on non-federal property.  I’m one of those quaint individuals who recognizes that the Constitution grants the federal government specific enumerated powers.  Using federal tax dollars to finance local parking garages, lots, bike centers and racks is not one of the powers granted to the federal government.  So let me rephrase my statement from yesterday: Look, I harbor no animosity against [car drivers], but under what authority — legal or moral — does the federal government tax me in order to build [parking garages or lots] for parochial, special interests?

By the way, for an excellent study on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local government, please see my colleague Chris Edwards’ “Federal Aid to the States: Historical Cause of Government Growth and Bureaucracy.”

Here are a few additional random thoughts…

I know so-called “progressives” like Yglesias don’t lose sleep over how much money the federal government spends, but $4 million to park a hundred or so bikes?  As Chris Moody noted to me today, if bike security is the major issue, why not pay a guard $12 an hour to stand watch?bike rack

Isn’t it possible, just possible, that a bike center with even more racks could have been built for a lot less?  Isn’t that the question that people like Yglesias, who want more people on bikes and less in cars, should be asking?

I don’t see anything inherently governmental about building and operating parking garages or bike centers.  The absolutely sorriest, most poorly run parking garage system I’ve ever experienced is the one managed by the State of Indiana where I used to work.  I recall an overcrowding situation – exacerbated by lousy management – in which the solution put forward was to just build another garage.  Hey, someone else is going to pay for it so who cares, right?  I often tell people that young libertarians should spend a couple years working in the bowels of government in order to reinforce their belief system with hands-on experience.  I’m starting to think “progressives” and other unwavering fans of all-things-government should do the same.