Tag: subsidies

High-Speed Rail and Federalism

Florida Governor Rick Scott deserves a big round of applause for dealing a major setback to the Obama administration’s costly plan for a national system of high-speed rail. As Randal O’Toole explains, the administration needed Florida to keep the $2.4 billion it was awarded to build a high-speed Orlando-to-Tampa line in order to build “momentum” for its plan. Instead, Scott put the interests of his taxpayers first and told the administration “no thanks.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the administration is going to dole the money back out to 22 passenger-rail projects in other states. Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.

Here’s Randal’s summary:

Instead, the Department of Transportation gave nearly $1 billion of the $2.4 billion to Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to replace worn out infrastructure and slightly speed up trains in that corridor, as well as connecting routes such as New Haven to Hartford and New York to Albany. Most of the rest of the money went to Midwestern states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri—to buy new trains, improve stations, and do engineering studies of a few corridors such as the vital Minneapolis-to-Duluth corridor. Trains going an average of 57 mph instead of 52 mph are not going to inspire the public to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail.

The administration did give California $300 million for its high-speed rail program. But, with that grant, the state still has only about 10 percent of the $65 billion estimated cost of a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, and there is no more money in the till. If the $300 million is ever spent, it will be for a 220-mph train to nowhere in California’s Central Valley.

Why should Floridians be taxed by the federal government to pay for passenger-rail in the northeast? If the states in the Northeast Corridor want to pick up the subsidy tab from the federal government, go for it. (I argue in a Cato essay on Amtrak that if the Northeast Corridor possesses the population density to support passenger-rail then it should just be privatized.)

I don’t know if taxpayers in Northeast Corridor would want to pick up the federal government’s share of the subsidies, but I’m pretty sure California taxpayers wouldn’t be interested in footing the entire $65 billion for their state’s high-speed boondoggle-in-the-works. As I’ve discussed before, the agitators for a national system of high-speed rail know this:

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR rail is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans aren’t happy that the administration is taking Florida’s money and spreading it around the country:

Monday’s announcement drew criticism from House Republican leaders, who questioned both the decision to divide the money into nearly two-dozen grants around the country—instead of concentrating it into fewer major projects—and the fact that many of the projects will benefit Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger-rail operator.

I heartily agree with the Amtrak complaint, but I’m not sure why as a federal taxpayer I should feel better about instead “concentrating [the money] into fewer major projects.” Subsidizing passenger-rail is no more a proper role of the federal government than education or housing. Unfortunately, for all the criticisms of the Obama administrations and the constant talk about spending cuts, Republicans don’t appear to possess much more desire to limit the scope of the federal government’s activities than the Democrats.

See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.

Distortions versus Outlays

My friend Gawain Kripke at Oxfam posted a very good blog entry yesterday on the proposed cuts to agriculture subsidies. In it, Gawain elaborates on a point that I made briefly in a previous post about Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget plan: that cutting so-called direct payments—those that flow to farmers regardless of how much or even whether they produce—is only part of the picture.

Here’s Gawain’s main point:

Most farm subsidies are price-dependent, meaning they are bigger if prices are low and smaller if prices are high. Prices are hitting historic highs for many commodities, which means the bulk of these subsidies are not paying out very much money. Over time, the price-dependent subsidies have been the bulk of farm subsidies. They also distort agriculture markets by encouraging farmers to depend on payments from the government rather managing their business and hedging risks.

So—these days there’s only about $5b in farm payments being made, and these payments are not considered as damaging in international trade terms because they are not based on prices…

Still, Congress will probably make some cuts. But these cuts won’t really be reform and won’t produce much long-term savings unless they tackle the price-dependent subsidies. Taking a whack at those subsidies could save taxpayers money later and make sure our farm programs don’t hurt poor farmers in developing countries. (emphasis added)

I will be delighted if direct payments are abolished, thereby saving American taxpayers about $5 billion a year. But we should not be content with that, nor should we fool ourselves that we have tackled the main distortions in agricultural markets. If the price- and production-linked programs are not abolished, too, then taxpayers and international markets will pay the price if/when commodity prices fall.

Wash. Post, CBS, NBC Should Disclose Receipt of ObamaCare Subsidies

It’s not an easy period for major media organizations, what with all this creative destruction revamping that sector of the economy.  So the Washington Post Co. couldn’t help but be pleased when it received a $570,000 bailout from ObamaCare’s Early Retiree Reinsurance Program.  That program allows the Obama administration to run up the national debt another $5 billion by doling out cash to corporations that provide retiree health benefits.   The CBS Corporation received more than $720,000.  General Electric, a part owner of NBC Universal, Inc., cleared nearly $37 million.

Since The Washington Post, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC have now received subsidies (the latter two indirectly) from this very controversial law, their reporters should disclose that fact to their audiences when reporting on ObamaCare.  A disclaimer like this should suffice: “The Washington Post Corporation has received subsidies under the health care law.”  That would be consistent with how NBC discloses its relationship with General Electric:

Oh, and kudos to the marketing whiz who decided to call all these ObamaCare spending programs “slush funds.”

Friday Links

  • What are Republicans doing to stop ObamaCare? Not much.
  • Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda isn’t helping our foreign policy dialogue.
  • “Sitting in a Volt that would not start at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, a GM engineer swore to me that the internal combustion engine in the machine only served as a generator, kicking in when the overnight-charged lithium-ion batteries began to run down.”
  • The new issue of Regulation looks at price gouging, soda taxes, the Durbin Amendment, and more.
  • Who should decide when we tap into strategic oil reserves: The president? Or market forces

Gingrich & Woolsey on Energy

The other day, The Wall Street Journal provided a public service by lambasting Newt Gingrich for his absurd speech to the ethanol lobby in Des Moines last month (money line:  ”Obviously big urban newspapers want to kill it because it’s working, and you wonder, ‘What are their values?’”).  Today, Gingrich and fellow ethanol-maven James Woolsey struck back in those very same pages.  In doing so, Gingrich provided yet more evidence that he’s intellectually unfit for office.

“It is in this country’s long-term best interest,” he said, ”to stop the flow of $1 billion a day overseas.”  Really?  So money sent overseas is gone forever.  News to me.  The only thing you can buy with dollars earned from oil sales to the U.S. is to buy things denominated in dollars or to exchange them so that someone else can.  And we sell a lot of stuff to foreigners that are denominated in dollars (treasury bills for one) and that money comes right back to the good old U.S. of A.

But put that aside.  If Gingrich really believes this, then why not just ban all imports all together?  Is that what the GOP is about these days - rank gooberism on trade?

And one other thing; the U.S. does not spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil.  It spends about half that; $530 million a day (in 2009 anyway).

“[I] co-produced a movie with my wife, Callista, ‘We Have the Power,’ that argued for an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy which would maximize all forms of domestic energy production.”  Apparently, being a pol means that one doesn’t have to pick and choose between investments a, b, or c.  We’ll just mandate everyone invest in everything that can attract a lobbyist. 
When you hear this stuff about an ”all of the above” energy strategy, what you’re hearing is a complaint that the Democrats aren’t subsidizing enough of the energy industry.  They are too tight-fisted with the public purse.  They are not ambitious enough in their planning.  And while Republicans bang the table for more, more, and more handouts to private corporations, liberals like Amory Lovins (prominent left-of-center energy guru) and Carl Pope (former head of the Sierra Club) call for zeroing out everyone’s subsidies and leaving the energy market the heck alone (at least when it comes to this matter).  It’s a mad, mad world.
 
“Nevertheless,” says Gingrich, ”the Journal attempts to equate my career-long commitment to increased American energy production with the anti-energy agenda of President Obama. This is a laughable charge, especially considering I have been one of the most vocal opponents of the president’s energy policies since he took office.”  Perhaps, but on this matter, Gingrich is attacking the administration from the Left.  
 
Even more amusing was James Woolsey’s lecture to the editorial board over what it means to be a conservative.   “We could not help wondering,” he asked along with his co-author, Gal Luft, ”why the Journal, despite its commitment to free enterprise, chose to attack Newt Gingrich for his call to open vehicles to fuel competition, which would cost auto makers under $100 per new car.”  Well Jim, a commitment to free enterprise is a commitment to allow enterprises to be free to produce whatever they want.  Of course, if Woolsey had read Gingrich’s speech to the ethanol lobby, he would not need to wonder - it’s about their sick, twisted values.
 
Nonetheless, Woolsey claims that such a mandate ”is perfectly in line with conservative economic principles.”  That may be true given what conservatives believe about economics.  But it’s not consistent with a principled support for a free market.
 
Finally, “Challenging Mr. Gingrich’s conservative bona fides based on his support for breaking oil’s virtual monopoly over transportation fuel is not only myopic but also the best gift the Journal can give OPEC.”  But … oil dominates the transportation market because it is a heck of a lot cheaper than any other fuel.  If it weren’t so much cheaper than ethanol, then we would have no need for such massive subsidies for the same.  The same goes for electric cars.  If and when that changes, oil’s “monopoly” will crumble.  Until then, taking oil out of transportation markets simply takes cheap fuel out of transportation markets.  It would be fun to watch a Gingrich/Woolsey ticket run on that.

RSC Silent on Farm Subsidies

Confirming my ongoing skepticism about the committment of self-identified fiscal conservatives, especially when it comes to cuts to programs that benefit their constituencies, Politico last night posted an excellent story about the Republican Study Committee’s silence on farm subsidies:

Net cash farm income for 2010 is projected to finish near $92.5 billion — a 41 percent increase even after subtracting payments from the government. Yet conservatives are almost tongue-tied, as seen last week with the Republican Study Committee’s proposal to eliminate relatively modest subsidies for an organic food growers program without mentioning the nearly $5 billion in much larger government direct payments to farm country — including to the home districts of many of the RSC’s members.

Indeed, 24 of the RSC’s estimated 165 members hail from the House Agriculture Committee, and total annual direct payments to their districts run more than $1.09 billion a year, according to a POLITICO review of data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

Farm groups aren’t exactly in a rage to offer up their programs for reform, but the National Association of Wheat Growers at their winter board meeting last week gave us plenty of evidence, as if more were needed, that support for the status quo is solid. An interesting nuance is their argument that, if they do “contribute” to deficit reduction, they won’t be “giving” more than anyone else, thank you very much:

NAWG supports the policy that if federal agriculture programs are subject to budget cuts to achieve deficit reduction, then the same percentage of cut should apply to all federal government programs.

While I might think that almost all areas of the federal budget need be cut, I just don’t buy the argument that farm subsidies are no more damaging, and therefore shouldn’t be cut more, than any other areas of government intervention. The federal government, in my opinion, has a role to play in limited and defined areas of public life.  I strongly disagree with the NAWG’s implication that farm subsidies are just as important/necessary as, say, public funding for national defense or for the control of infectious disease.

State Corporate Welfare Programs Under Fire

One positive outcome of the recession, as the states struggle to find revenue to spend, is that state subsidies to businesses are facing increased scrutiny.

This week the New York Times reported that states are looking at reducing or ending programs that hand out taxpayer money to television and movie producers. In Pennsylvania, some last-minute handouts from outgoing governor Ed Rendell are under fire, including a $10 million state grant to rehabilitate a former Sony plant for new tenants. According to the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nate Benefield, this is the fourth time Pennsylvania taxpayers have subsidized the site:

Sony moved out in 2007, despite getting more than $40 million in corporate welfare under Gov. Robert P. Casey to come to Pennsylvania, then another $1 million grant under Rendell to stay in the state—a mere two years before shutting down its plant.

Before Sony, the site was occupied by Volkswagen, which got $70 million in state aid in the 1970s under Gov. Milton Shapp. This was touted as a great success – until Volkswagen moved out in 1987, after 10 years of operation.

Pennsylvania is merely renting jobs with this “economic development” spending, burdening other businesses with higher taxes. Hopefully, Gov. Tom Corbett can learn from the failed policies of the past and work on improving the state’s economic climate rather than trying to pick winners.

New Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett could learn a lesson from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which received another black eye this week. I’ve written previously on problems with the IEDC, which is the state’s corporate welfare arm. As a former budget official with the State of Indiana, I can attest that the IEDC’s string of embarrassments is as unsurprising as it is appalling.

On Tuesday, investigative report Bob Segall of WTHR-TV in Indianapolis released the latest in a series of reports on the IEDC’s exaggerated job creation claims. (Intrepid journalists take note: Bob and his team just received a prestigious Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award for their investigatory work on the IEDC.)

Bob took the findings of a recent audit and ascertained that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and the IEDC haven’t been giving Hoosiers the full story.

From the report:

The “Summary of Incentive Program Review” prepared by audit firm Crowe Horwath examined 597 job-creation projects outlined in IEDC annual reports from 2005 to 2009. The projects were listed as “Indiana Economic Successes” that would bring new jobs to Indiana.

According to the report, those projects were expected to create 44,208 jobs by late 2010 and, based on the most recent information available to auditors, have so far resulted in 37,640 actual jobs — a realization rate of 85%.

But the state’s job realization rate is actually much lower than 85%, according to additional data reviewed by WTHR.

The numbers cited above are based solely on data for “reporting companies,” and they do not include job data for 200 other projects also listed as “Indiana Economic Successes” in IEDC annual reports. Including those projects, as well, the number of newly-created jobs the agency had anticipated to materialize by the end of 2010 is 57,088 (not 44,208), according to the report. Using that figure, IEDC’s job realization rate is 66%.

And nowhere does the audit report mention the 98,683 total new job commitments announced by IEDC from 2005 to 2009. Using that number — which IEDC and the governor have repeatedly promoted in their press releases, speeches and annual reports – the audit data suggests, so far, only 38% of jobs announced by IEDC have resulted in actual jobs. While that percentage is expected to increase in coming years (some of the companies are not expected to fulfill all of their job commitments for several more years), the overall numbers show IEDC’s real job realization statistics are much lower than the agency portrays to the public by citing far more limited data.

Two words in this selection from the report stand out: “press releases.” My observations of the IEDC from within the Daniels administration led me to coin the phrase “press release economics” to describe what Indiana government officials were really practicing.

Programs that hand out taxpayer money to businesses to lure or retain jobs are popular with state politicians, and Governor Daniels is no different. Better policies, like cutting business taxes across the board, require a willingness to expend substantial political capital without an immediate payoff. (I recently read that Daniels would sign a cut in the state’s high corporate tax rate if a proposal in the state legislature makes it to his desk. Daniels had turned down the idea of cutting the corporate rate while I was there, so the change of heart is curious but nonetheless welcome.)

Targeted business subsidies, on the other hand, are cheaper and generate immediate, favorable press. Unfortunately, this form of central planning is unsound as it merely transfers economic resources from taxpayers – including businesses – to businesses favored by government officials. And because government officials are inherently inferior to the market when it comes to directing economic activity, the results are far from ideal – and often downright counterproductive.