Tag: private market

Put Federal Flood Insurance Out of Its Misery

The House of Representatives is scheduled this week, as early as today, to consider an extension and “reform” of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), administered by FEMA. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the NFIP has been about $18 billion in the hole. And this is from a program that only collects around $2 billion a year in premiums, which barely covers losses and expenses in a normal year. So make no mistake, the NFIP is still on course to cost the taxpayer billions more in the future.

Even before Katrina, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the NFIP was receiving a subsidy of close to a billion dollars a year. Under CBO’s optimistic projections, the House’s reform bill would increase NFIP revenues by about $4 billion over the next ten years, making only a small dent in the program’s current deficit.

The projected cost savings could potentially be lost by the expansion of the NFIP in the House bill. Yes, you read that correctly. Despite being deep in debt, the House is proposing to expand the coverage, and hence the risk, underwritten by the NFIP. For instance, the reform bill adds coverage for living expenses and “business interruption expenses,” as well as increasing the coverage limit from $350,000 (250k for structure and 100k for contents) to about $520,000 per home.

Such a massive expansion of coverage would likely drive out the existing providers of excess flood insurance coverage. And yes, you also read that correctly: there are a handful of insurers that offer private flood insurance. There is absolutely no reason that the private market could not offer flood insurance. Yes, rates might go up for the highest risk properties, but they would likely go down for others (and clearly reduce costs to the taxpayer). And given the high administrative costs of the NFIP (about 30 percent of premiums go directly to private insurance companies to help run it), it is likely that a completely private system of flood insurance would be cheaper.

In the aftermath of the housing bubble and its extreme costs to the taxpayer, we should eliminate the vast array of subsidies for housing construction, including the NFIP. If there’s one thing we should have learned, the underpricing of risk can have disastrous results.

Unfair Subsidies for Buses

Cato essays on the Department of Transportation contain a common theme: federal subsidies for various modes of transportation have stifled privately funded and operated alternatives. One emerging bright spot is private intercity bus companies.

From a Cato essay on Amtrak subsidies:

If Amtrak is privatized, passenger rail will be in a much better position to compete with resurgent intercity bus services. The rapid growth in bus services in recent years illustrates how private markets can solve our mobility needs if left reasonably unregulated and unsubsidized. A Washington Post reporter detailed her experiences with today’s low-cost intercity buses: “This new species offers curbside pickup and drop-offs, cheap fares, clean restrooms, express service, online reservations, free WiFi and loyalty programs … The bus fares undercut Amtrak and, depending on the number of passengers, personal vehicles.”

That’s why a story out of Minnesota is disturbing. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Jefferson Lines, which operates a bus line between Duluth and the Twin Cities, received $2.65 million in federal stimulus money to purchase five of the eight buses it has in service. One of Jefferson Lines’ competitors isn’t happy:

That angers Dave Clark, owner of Skyline Shuttle, which provides transportation from Duluth to the Twin Cities. Clark claims it’s unfair for Jefferson Lines to use government money to compete with his business and cut into his revenue.

“When there’s a market and they are competitors, it should be left to the market without government interference,” Clark said. “They could have taken the risk themselves, but they relied on the taxpayer to take the risk.”

The first problem is that federal taxpayers across the country are being forced to subsidize a private bus line in Minnesota. The second problem is that the government is effectively picking winners and losers in the market for intercity bus services. Instead of spreading transportation subsidies across every form of transportation, the federal government should cease with the seemingly endless interventions and allow free individuals to figure out what makes the most sense.

A Tale of Two Frauds

The President has announced a government crackdown on Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The effort appears to be an attempt to make it easier for Americans to swallow the health care “reform” he’s trying to shove down their throats. As House Republican leader John Boehner correctly asked, “Why can’t we crack down on fraud without a big-government takeover of health care?”

As I’ve noted before, improper payments made by Medicare and Medicaid is may well be $50 billion more than the already appalling $100 billion annual figure the president cited. Administrative efforts to rein in fraud and abuse are welcome, but they won’t solve the huge and fundamental inefficiencies of these programs. Because the law requires government health care programs to quickly get payments out the door, Uncle Sam will always be engaged in a costly game of “pay and chase.”

The broader problem is that government programs aren’t subject to market discipline. Policymakers and administrators have little incentive to be frugal because they face few or no negative consequences when playing with other people’s money.

Most of us have noticed how good private companies can be at reducing fraud. I recently received a call about questionable charges on my Discover credit card. After quizzing me on a list of purchases made with my card in the past 24 hours, it became clear that someone had gotten control of my account. Discover immediately closed the account, opened an investigation, and removed me from any liability for the fraudulent charges.

What amazed me is that I only had about $300 worth of charges on my card. It’s not a big account and thus not a big money maker for Discover. Yet, within 24 hours of a string of suspicious charges, the company was right on top of it before I even realized anything nefarious was going on. Private markets don’t always work this well, but government programs almost never do.

Strange Bedfellows?

Jon Walker at FireDogLake says I’ve got the wrong smoking gun:

The smoking gun was a manual put out by the CBO in May…It spelled out exactly how much regulation was “too much” regulation. It explained what was the magical threshold that would cause [CBO director] Doug Elmendorf to declare some private market part of the government budget. Now, I’m angry about this for different reasons than the Cato Institute. I think it is insane that there could be any level of regulation that would make the private market part of the federal budget. Either the money is going through the federal treasury or it is not. I don’t think the the CBO director should have the power to see gray areas on this issue…There is no real logic to it, he simply decided what he thought was enough regulation to make something part of the budget.

To be sure, Walker and I have different ideas when it comes to (1) health care reform.  (Not that you asked, but here are my ideas.)  We likewise disagree that (2) the CBO’s May 27 paper was the smoking gun.  That paper laid out the CBO’s (vague) criteria for including “private” financial transactions in the federal budget (and I duly linked to it in my ‘smoking gun’ post).  But the December 13 memo is the first documented instance of Democrats gaming those criteria.  And I disagree that (3) this was all Elmendorf’s decision, (4) the federal budget should reflect only money that passes through the Treasury (instead of all the money that the feds control), and (5) there’s no logic behind the CBO’s criteria.

All that said, there are a couple of areas where Walker and I agree.  For one, he writes:

More importantly, I don’t think something as important as regulation should be written to trick the CBO. It should be written to produce the best heath care system possible, not the best looking CBO score possible.

Hear, hear.  Yet congressional Democrats have been doing just that, gaming the CBO’s rules to hide the implicit subsidies their legislation would provide to large private insurance companies.

For another, he and I both agree that that legislation is little more than a bailout of large private insurance companies and would be worse than doing nothing.

My question for Walker, and for Howard Dean, and for Markos Moulitsas is: will they join me in calling for the Senate to obtain a CBO cost estimate of the off-budget part of the insurance-industry bailout (i.e., the individual and employer mandates)?  Do they think Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should at least be up front with his base about what he’s asking them to swallow?  Do they think that We, the People deserve to know the whole truth about this bill?