Tag: subsidies

Unsettling Cotton Settlement at the WTO

Last week the U.S. government settled a long-running trade dispute with Brazil, winning taxpayers the privilege of continuing to subsidize America’s wealthy cotton farmers in exchange for our commitment to subsidize Brazilian cotton farmers, as well. That’s right! We get to pay U.S. cotton farming businesses to overproduce, export, and suppress global prices to the detriment of Brazilian (and other countries’) cotton farmers provided that we compensate the Brazilians to the tune of $300 million.

Some background. Ten years ago, in a case brought by Brazil, the WTO Dispute Settlement Body ruled that the United States was exceeding its subsidy allowances for domestic cotton farmers and that it should bring its practices into compliance with the relevant WTO agreements. After delays and half-baked U.S. efforts to comply, Brazil sought and received permission from the WTO to retaliate (or, in WTO parlance, to “withdraw concessions” because opening one’s own market in a world of mercantilist reciprocity is, perversely, considered a cost or concession). Under the threat of such retaliation, instead of bringing its cotton subsidies into WTO compliance, the U.S. government agreed to pay $147 million per year to Brazilian farmers so that it could continue subsidizing U.S. farmers beyond agreed limits. That arrangement prevailed for a few years until the funds were cut during the budget sequester earlier this year – an event that triggered a renewed threat of retaliation from Brazil, which now has been averted on account of last week’s $300 million settlement.

The Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer characterized the agreement as a “good deal” because it ends the specter of soured bilateral relations, which $800 million of targeted retaliation against U.S. exporters and intellectual property holders would likely produce, for a reasonable price of $300 million “spread widely across the US population, around 90 cents a person.” In Hufbauer’s opinion:

Money damages, paid in this way, are much fairer, and do not destroy the benefits of international commerce, unlike concentrated retaliation against firms that had nothing to do with the original dispute. The WTO system is only designed to authorize such retaliation, but the US-Brazil settlement points the way towards a better way of satisfying breaches of WTO obligations.

While I share Hufbauer’s desire to avoid retaliation and soured relations, his rationale for endorsing the settlement seems a bit strained. If the settlement is justifiable because the costs are spread across 300-plus million Americans, then Hufbauer can probably lend his support to most subsidies, tariffs, and other forms of protectionism, which endure because the concentrated benefits accruing to the favor-seekers are paid through costs imposed, often imperceptibly, on a diffuse base of unorganized consumers or taxpayers. Does the smallness or the imperceptibility of the costs make it right? No, but it makes it easy to get away with, which is why I think it’s pennywise and pound foolish to endorse such outcomes. There are all sorts of federal subsidies to industries and tariffs on goods that may be small or imperceptible as a cost on a standalone basis at the individual level.  But when aggregated across programs, the costs to individuals become more significant. It’s death by 10,000 cuts.

Cotton Subsidies and the Upside of Wasteful Government Incompetence

An internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the “Economic Adjustment Assistance to Users of Upland Cotton Program” (EAAP) has revealed widespread misuse of subsidies given to owners of textile mills.  The program pays mills based on how much cotton they buy and requires that they spend the money on capital improvements at the mill.  It turns out some owners were just buying whatever the heck they wanted with the money—and that’s probably a good thing.

The primary purpose of the EAAP is to increase the demand for cotton.  The money goes to the mills, but the intended beneficiary is the cotton farmer, who gets an overpaying customer.  By conditioning the payment on an equivalent reinvestment in the cotton mill, the program also hopes to artificially increase the supply of cotton mills.  This, too, is meant to benefit cotton farmers by keeping their customers invested in buying their product. 

If the textile mill owners are using the subsidies to purchase—as the Washington Free Beacon reports—“Ford Explorers, artwork, sound systems, and elephant lamps,” then the program is ultimately less distortive of the U.S. and global cotton market.  That’s a good thing.  If the government is going to take money from some people and give it to others, at the very least we should hope that they do it in the least destructive way possible.

On the other hand, if the mill owners get the money with no strings attached, that increases the incentive for them to take the subsidy in the first place.  My guess, though, is that paying people to buy things they actually want is less distortive than paying them to buy things the government wants them to buy.

So, a toast to government incompetence (this time).  If someone’s going to do bad things, I’m glad it’s these idiots.

Who Is Transit for?

Rail advocates often call me “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

Who, other than rail contractors, union members, and other transit agency employees, is enjoying the benefits of all of these subsidies? To answer this question, I went to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey page and downloaded table B08519, which shows how people get to work by income class, for states and metropolitan areas.

Subsidies Make Businesses Weaker

The technical arguments against the Export-Import Bank are provided in this excellent summary by Veronique de Rugy. However, one argument against Ex-Im and other business subsidies is not stressed enough in policy debates: subsidies weaken the businesses that receive them.

Subsidies change the behavior of recipients. Just like individual welfare reduces work incentives, corporate welfare dulls business competitiveness. Subsidies give companies a crutch, an incentive not to improve efficiency or to innovate, as I noted here.

Yesterday, I looked at Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsom’s new book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, which examines federal fur trading boondoggles of 1795-1822. 

Now let’s look at Chapter 2, which focuses on the steamboat industry of the 19th century. The historical lesson is clear: subsidies make companies weak, inefficient, and resistant to innovation.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the Folsoms’ steamboat story:

  • In 1806 New York gives Robert Fulton a legal monopoly on steamboat travel in the state. Breaking this misguided law, a young Cornelius Vanderbilt launches a competitive service in 1817.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the New York law in 1824. The effect is to usher in an era of steamboat innovation and falling prices for consumers.
  • Vanderbilt launches many new steamboat routes whenever he sees an opportunity to drive down prices.
  • With subsidies from the British government, Samuel Cunard launches a steamship service from England to North America in 1840. In response, Edward Collins successfully lobbies Congress to give him subsidies to challenge Cunard on the Atlantic route. With this unfortunate precedent, Congress proceeds to hand out subsidies to steamship firms on other routes.
  • By the 1850s, Congress is providing Collins a huge annual subsidy of $858,000. Irked by the subsidies and Collins’ inefficient service, Vanderbilt builds a better and faster ship and launches his own Atlantic service.
  • In 1856 two of Collins’ inferior ships sink, killing almost 500 people. Collins builds a new ship, but it is so shoddy that it is scrapped after only two trips.
  • Congress finally realizes that the aid to Collins is damaging, as it has spawned an inferior and mismanaged business. Congress cuts off the subsidies in 1858. Without subsidies, Collins’ steamship company collapses.
  • Vanderbilt also out-competes subsidized steamship companies on the East Coast-to-West Coast route through Central America.
  • In England, an unsubsidized competitor to Cunard—the Inman Line—is launched and begins out-competing and out-innovating the subsidized incumbent.
  • The subsidized Cunard and Collins aim their services at the high-end luxury market. The more efficient and unsubsidized Vanderbilt and Inman focus on driving down prices for people with more moderate incomes.
  • Government subsidies “actually retarded progress because Cunard and Collins both used their monopolies to stifle innovation and delay technological changes in steamship construction.”

Government subsidies have similar negative effects today, whether it is subsidies to energy companies, aid to farm businesses, or the Ex-Im program.

The difference is that in the 19th century Congress eventually cut off subsidies when the damage became clear, as it did with steamship subsidies in 1858 and fur trading subsidies in 1822. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but I can’t think of a business subsidy program terminated by Congress in recent years, or even in recent decades.  

Can Egypt Cure Its Subsidy Addiction?

Egypt’s government spends more on subsidies of consumer products—most prominently energy and food—than on health and education combined. Subsidies distort markets, lead to waste, and are largely ineffective in helping Egypt’s poor. Therefore, it should be heartening to see the government tackling the problem, as part of its effort to bring down the country’s fiscal deficit.

According to Finance Minister Hany Kadri Dimian, in the new fiscal year 2014–2015, “[T]he allocation for fuel subsidies has been cut from around EGP144bn ($20bn) last year to EGP100bn in the new budget.”

On the surface, that appears to be a bold step, slashing spending on fuel subsidies—which are by far the biggest fraction of the total subsidy bill—by almost a third. But there is a catch. According to the budget for the past fiscal year, 2013–2014, the subsidies to oil materials were already supposed to be close to EGP100bn ($14bn). Yet, the actual spending was drastically higher, perhaps by as much as an additional EGP70bn ($10bn)

And, similarly, in the preceding fiscal year, 2012–2013, the budget for fuel subsidies was to be EGP70bn, in what was seen at the time as an attempt to bring spending under control, especially relative to the previous fiscal year. But again, the actual spending on fuel subsidies during the year was drastically higher. Some of the Finance Ministry’s revised estimates were at EGP100bn, while others claimed the real numbers were even more sizeable.

In short, in recent years the government of Egypt systematically—and quite substantially—underestimated the planned spending on fuel subsidies. One can blame that on many factors, most prominently on the political turmoil, but this track record gives little guarantee that this time will be different.

Although the awareness of the problem, as well as the wider use of smart cards to allocate subsidies, are both encouraging, one needs to keep in mind that the most recent announcement is a far cry from a genuine reform plan. Even if actual spending on subsidies were exactly equal to the amount allocated in the budget, in nominal terms that would only bring Egypt back to the spending levels of fiscal 2011–2012, which were already unsustainable. As I argued in an earlier paper, what Egypt needs is a plan to phase out fuel subsidies altogether and replace them with targeted cash transfers. Alas, such a plan is nowhere in sight.

Iran, Stable but Miserable

Since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran in August of last year, the economic outlook for Iran has improved. When Rouhani took office, he promised three things: to curb the inflation which had become rampant under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to stabilize Iran’s currency (the Rial), and to start talks to potentially end the sanctions which have battered Iran since 2010. Rouhani has delivered on each of these promises. From this, one might assume that the Iranian economy, and the Iranian people, are headed towards better times.

Unfortunately, the Misery Index paints a different picture. The Misery Index is the sum of the inflation, interest, and unemployment rates, minus the annual percentage change in per capita GDP. It provides a clear picture of the economic conditions facing Iranians.

Egypt’s Subsidy Nightmare

If you think that Western welfare states are in a pickle, imagine what they would look like if, instead of transferring money, governments tried to help people by giving all of them free or cheap stuff. One does not need to be an economist to see the inefficiency of in-kind transfers, but many countries use redistribution of stuff – typically in the form of commodity subsidies – as the main tool of redistribution and social assistance.

In Egypt, the government subsidizes the prices of fuels and certain food products at artificially low levels. Obviously, the wealthy – who can afford to consume more of the subsidized commodities – are the largest beneficiaries of the subsidy system. In urban areas of Egypt, for example, the top quintile of the income distribution receives eight times as much in energy subsidies as the bottom quintile.

As I argue in a new Cato Policy Analysis published today, commodity subsidies are behind Egypt’s fiscal meltdown – the country is currently running a deficit of 15 percent of GDP, while being kept afloat only by the inflow of funds from the Gulf countries. To avert a looming fiscal catastrophe, Egyptian policymakers need to act now. The paper, which I also summarize here, provides a list of recommendations about how the reform should be approached:

Pages