Tag: subsidies

Injustice of State Subsidies

My colleague Chris Edwards made a good point yesterday in his post on the injustice of federal subsidies.  The wrangling between the states to haul in the federal largesse is wasteful, and getting worse.  But the underlying issue in the article Chris cites — a state using taxpayer money to lure a company away from another state — is another wasteful activity that is all too common.

Instead of competing with other states to attract industry by lowering taxes and reducing regulations, it seems most state governors prefer a politically opportunistic method I call “press release economics.”  Here’s how it works:

A state “economic development” agency offers an out-of-state company (or even an out-of-country company) tax breaks and/or direct subsidies to locate some or all of its business operations in that state.  Most likely, the business would have located there anyhow due to myriad factors including demographics, transportation logistics, and workforce capabilities.  Sometimes several states will engage in a “bidding war” to get a business to set up shop within their borders.  The governor of the “winning” state will then issue a press release citing the new jobs and capital his administration has just brought to the state.  The locating company usually tells the press that the winning state’s package helped seal the deal.  The company and the governor’s press staff then typically arrange a photo-op at an orchestrated ground-breaking ceremony for the new facilities.

If a state is already bleeding jobs, as is often the case in the current economy, such press releases and photo-ops can be a political coup.  Moreover, the governor will have given up, or foregone, relatively little in tax revenue in comparison to, say, cutting the state corporate income tax.  This also leaves the governor with more money to spend on various vote-buying programs. I’m picking on governors, but the legislature generally prefers the press-release economics route for similar reasons.  And if you’re a governor, why risk the headache of engaging the legislature in a fight over reducing corporate taxes, unemployment taxes, or any other tax — including personal income taxes and sales taxes — that effect industry when you can take the easy win?

Am I too cynical?  Actually, I had first-hand experience with this issue when I worked in state government.  My suggestion that the governor eliminate or reduce the state’s high corporate income tax rate, and “pay for it” — at least in part — by getting rid of the state’s corporate welfare apparatus, was routinely ignored for the reasons I cited above.  That one would be hard-pressed to find support among the economics profession for the state corporate welfare give-away game means little to the majority of policymakers and their minions who naturally favor short-term political gain over long-term economic gain.  That other companies already located within the state are stuck paying the regular tax rate, and are thus put at a competitive disadvantage, is a secondary or non-concern as well.

Another issue that I won’t delve into here is the fact that these giveaways often blow up in a state’s face when the locating company ends up not producing the jobs it promised and/or it relocates to another state or country after pocketing the free taxpayer money.  Anyhow, journalists should be on the lookout for more press-release economics schemes coming from the states as revenues remain tight and politicians become desperate to demonstrate they’re “doing something.”  Journalists should examine a state’s tax structure when a taxpayer giveaway is announced to see if perhaps the governor is masking economic-unfriendly fiscal policies.

Note: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford proposed late last year to do exactly what I recommended: eliminate the state’s corporate income tax, offset in part by the elimination of corporate tax incentives.  There is hope.

Injustice of Federal Subsidies

Ohio lawmakers are hot under the collar about federal stimulus dollars possibly helping Georgia bid away one of its big employers. Here’s the Dayton Daily News:

NCR’s news release touting its decision to move jobs from Dayton to the Atlanta, Ga. suburbs includes one factoid that has Ohio lawmakers in a fury: The City of Columbus, Ga. plans to use federal stimulus dollars to buy a building and construct another to accommodate the 870 manufacturing jobs expected to come to the that Atlanta suburb. ‘The fact that economic stimulus dollars were used to move an Ohio company to Georgia at taxpayer expense is an outrage,’ said state Sen. Jon Husted.

Added U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Columbus: “Federal stimulus money is being used to create winners and losers among workers in different states and that’s just not right; it’s dirty.”

All I can say to both parties is that’s what you get for building an imperial city on the Potomac and spending the last few decades destroying the constitutional principle of federalism. As I’ve described in this study, regional warfare over federal subsidies has escalated in recent years. It’s horribly wasteful, and it’s getting worse.

The Economic Case for Health Care Reform

There’s an old Yiddish saying that, “If my bubba had wheels she’d be a trolley.” So goes the logic of the Obama administration in their paper released yesterday, “The Economic Case for Health Care Reform.” Their claim is that reducing health care costs would help the economy. Yes, if health care costs were reduced it would likely help the economy, though we should remember that the health care industry is part of the economy.

There is nothing in Obamacare, however, that will reduce costs. In fact, expanding coverage may cause costs to rise. One study by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein suggests that the prevalence of insurance itself has roughly doubled the cost of health care. So, if Obama succeeds in expanding insurance coverage, it’s very likely to increase the cost of care.

Take Massachusetts for example. Three years ago, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney signed into law one of the most far-reaching experiments in health care reform since President Bill Clinton’s ill-fated attempt at national health care. Proponents promised the reforms would reduce health care costs, suggesting the price of individual insurance policies would be reduced by 25-40 percent. In reality, however, insurance premiums rose by 7.4 percent in 2007, 8-12 percent in 2008, and are expected to rise 9 percent this year. This is compared to a nationwide average increase of 5.7 percent over the same three years. Nationally, on average, health insurance for a family of four costs $12,700; in Massachusetts, coverage for the same family costs an average of $16,897.

In fact, since the bill was signed, health care spending in the state has increased by 23 percent. Thus, despite individual and employer mandates, the creation of an insurance connector and other measures that increase insurance regulations, Massachusetts has failed to bring costs down.

President Obama and Congressional leaders have endorsed expanding coverage in similar ways to Massachusetts. The proposals would undoubtedly make it easier for some people to get coverage, but would also raise insurance costs for the young and healthy, making it more likely they would go without coverage. This leaves two choices: revert to the individual mandate (President Obama opposed the mandate as a candidate) or increase subsidies to try to cut costs to young and healthy individuals, thereby adding to the already substantial cost of the proposed plans.

Ultimately, controlling costs requires someone to say “no,” whether the government (as in single-payer systems with global budgets), insurers (managed care) or health care consumers themselves (by desire or ability to pay). In reality, any health care reform will have to confront the fact that the biggest single reason costs keep rising is that the American people keep buying more and more health care.

Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

It Begins: White House Unleashes the Health Care Tempest

Monday’s meeting between President Obama and representatives of the health care industry is part of an ongoing process of trying to strike a deal between government and industry over how to reform health care. Notably absent from that equation is the most important party: health care consumers.

Health care reform should be about empowering patients, not about how much increased government control the health care industry is willing to accept.

Moreover, any promised health care savings that came out of yesterday’s meeting are likely to prove illusory in the face of increased government regulation, subsidies and interference that will almost certainly drive up the cost (and decrease the quality) of health care.

Obama’s Budget Cuts

The Obama administration has issued a modest list of budget cuts for programs that are “duplicative” and “ineffective.”

That’s a good start for spending reforms, but a more substantial way to end “duplication” would be to terminate all $500 billion of federal subsidies sent to state governments each year, which duplicate properly state-level activities such as highway building.

Further, cutting some “ineffective” programs ignores the broader question of whether programs represent just and legitimate uses of government power. We can make farm subsidies more “effective,” for example, but that does not make it ethical to transfer $20 billion each year from hard-working taxpayers to often high-income farm businesses.

I’d like to see the Obama administration attack Washington’s overspending problem in a more dramatic and fundamental way.

For now, here’s a great place to start:

Obama’s Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail Plan

The Obama administration believes in recycling, as shown by the so-called high-speed rail plan it announced last week. Below is a map of the plan, and below that is a map of the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2005 high-speed rail plan. As you can see, the proposed routes are identical. (The grey lines on the first map represent conventional Amtrak routes.)

map of the plan

2005 map

Of course, this is a time-honored practice. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was really the Bureau of Public Roads’ Interregional Highway System. There is no doubt that the Federal Railroad Administration is thrilled that Obama has adopted its plan.

Yet there are several problems with Obama’s plan. First, it is important to understand that most of Obama’s plan is not bullet trains or TGVs. Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster – up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph – than Amtrak runs today. Based on this, here are my most important objections to Obama’s moderate-speed rail plan.

1. Less than 1 percent will ride, more than 99 percent will pay

More than 4 percent of federal transportation spending goes to Amtrak, yet Amtrak carries only 0.1 percent of passenger travel. Moderate- and high-speed trains will significantly increase the subsidies but have little effect on the total travel. Why is it fair for 99.8 percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other 0.2 percent?

Even with subsidies, high-speed rail fares will be about 50 percent higher than ordinary Amtrak fares. For example, passengers pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington, and $99 to ride high-speed train. (By comparison, an unsubsidized bus is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99.) This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

2. Moderate-speed rail is dirty

Obama’s claims that trains are better for the environment are pure speculation. Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient than cars and planes. While cars and planes are expected to get far more energy-efficient in the future, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.

True high-speed rail, which generally powered by electricity, is dirty too. Even if the electricity comes from renewable resources, the energy and environmental cost of construction will be enormous. It will take decades for the trivial annual savings to pay back that cost.

3. It doesn’t work in Europe

High-speed trains in Europe are convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. Even in France, which has more high-speed trains than any other European country, the average resident rides heavily subsidized high-speed trains just 400 miles per year. Despite punitive fuel taxes, they drive 7,600 miles per year, a number that is increasing faster than high-speed rail travel.

4. It doesn’t work in Japan

The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per year. The Japanese ride trains more than the residents of any other country – nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail – but due to premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.

5. Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America’s rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways.

Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway. By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.

Personally, I love trains. But Obama’s plan is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment. We would be better off ending all subsidies to transportation than piling on subsidy after subsidy for transport that is supposedly environmentally friendly but in fact hardly anyone will use.