Tag: subsidies

Higher Education Subsidies

A battle over higher education loans is coming to a head as Democrats consider including the ill-titled Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act in reconciliation legislation. In one corner, we have private education loan lenders who enjoy the generous subsidies and loan guarantees provided by Uncle Sam. In the other, we have policymakers who want to cut out the middleman by having the Department of Education provide direct loans.

Critics of SAFRA correctly point out that the alleged savings of nationalizing student loan subsidies are a sham. The Congressional Budget Office has scored the nationalizing portion of the bill as saving $67 billion over ten years. However, in a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), the CBO acknowledged that when the cost of default risk is factored in, the alleged savings drop by $33 billion. Yet, taxpayers won’t realize any savings because the legislation adds $80 billion in additional spending for Pell grants and other programs.

For taxpayers, the unpalatable choice is nationalization or crony capitalism—subsidizing private businesses. The real answer is for the federal government to get out of the higher education subsidy business altogether, as a Cato essay argues.

The following are some key points from the essay:

  • The effect of subsidy programs, in part, is to impose taxes on blue collar workers—who have not attended college—to pay for the tuition of future white-collar professionals. Why should the government subsidize future high earners at the expense of average working people?
  • Federal student aid programs transfer wealth from taxpayers to academic institutions. That’s because the rise in student subsidies over the decades appears to have fueled inflation in education costs. Tuition and other college costs have soared as subsidies have risen. College cost inflation induced by federal aid probably hurts low-income families—the people that federal aid was supposed to target—more than others.
  • Federal aid has probably helped increase student enrollment, but many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. This is evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work, and the fact that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students.
  • Increasing top-down control and subsidization of higher education from Washington is creating a threat to the strength of the American system. As we have seen in K-12 education, the growth in federal subsidies is usually accompanied by calls for more oversight, micromanagement, and rising levels of red tape imposed by Washington.
  • Federal student loan and grant programs have been subject to waste and fraud for decades. The Pell grant program (which SAFRA would enlarge) costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year in fraud. Another ongoing problem is the high default rate on student loan programs.

A $1.1 Billion Re-Election Campaign. For the Senate.

When Rep. Collin Peterson (D- Minn. and Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee) pronounces that a farm program is too generous, you know you’ve crossed a line.

But that’s what happened recently after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman and – oh, hey, how about that? – facing a tough re-election battle in November proposed an extra $1.1 billion in emergency farm aid be added to a jobs/tax/unemployment/kitchen sink bill going through the Senate this week. These extra handouts would flow despite the fact that the 2008 farm bill contained ”reforms” (the so-called ”permanent disaster” program) ostensibly to put an end to politically-motivated ad hoc emergency aid of just the type that Senator Lincoln is pushing now.

For those who can stomach it, this excellent article by Dan Morgan, one of the nation’s best agriculture journalists, contains plenty of background information.

Our Little Scholars

As I mentioned a few days ago, today is the “Day of Action” in California – and, it turns out, elsewhere – when college students and just general protectors of public schooling are supposed to take to the streets and demand that taxpayers fork over not one less red cent to students and schools.

Ironically, the mindless, property-destroying, absurd goings-on that have surrounded past such demonstrations in Cali – and are already in evidence today – brilliantly illustrate one major reason we need to cut higher education subsidies, not increase them. Clearly, too many college students have both far too much time on their hands, and far too little self control, to justify spending hard-earned taxpayer dough on their “education.”

But at least the ostensible motivation behind recreational rioting in California has been slightly related to a principle – namely, the principle that taxpayers owe students stuff. That’s actually a better excuse for taking to the streets than what set off last night’s student riots in College Park, Maryland: a victory in a basketball game. (To be fair, University of Maryland students also riot after losses – they’re no fair weather fans!)

And to think – one of the reasons we’re supposed to support massive subsidies for students is that it serves the common good. Go figure.

Federal Aid to States Is Too Popular

The Economist’s Free Exchange blog asks: “[W]hy isn’t federal aid to states more popular, and popular enough to get through Congress, given that nearly every American lives in one?”

I would ask the blog’s author: How much more popular would he like it to be? As the following charts show, federal aid to state and local governments has catapulted to record levels.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Medicaid has been driving the growth in federal subsidies to state and local governments. But other areas, such as education, income security, and transportation, have also seen substantial increases.

Subsidizing state and local government is quite popular with federal, state, and local policymakers and associated special interests. It’s doubtful the average citizen is aware that so much of their state’s spending is derived from their federal tax dollars. However, I suspect that most folks (who aren’t on the take) would frown upon the concept of sending money to Washington only to have politicians send it back to the states via the federal bureaucracy. While there may be popular support for many of the state programs funded with federal dollars, citizens need to understand that federal subsidization of state and local government has fueled unhealthy government growth at all levels.

Senator Bunning’s Unappreciated Gifts

Sen. Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) blocked “extended” unemployment benefits beyond their scheduled expiration on February 27. That thwarted bill would also have put off, again, a scheduled 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians. Democrats were outraged. But why?

Bunning just wanted to use leftover “stimulus” money to pay for the benefits. Why not? Such transfer payments accounted for over 80 percent of stimulus spending last year.

Besides, as Federal Reserve policymakers noted, the evidence is overwhelming (see here and here) that extending unemployment benefits from six months to nearly two years has raised the unemployment rate by a percentage point or two. I’ve waited since 1991 for someone to prove I’m wrong about that. Nobody has, because nobody can.

If the maximum duration of jobless benefits were trimmed by 13 to 20 weeks (which is all that’s at stake), they would still be far more extended than ever before. But the unemployment rate by the time of this November’s elections would be much lower than otherwise. Would Democrats prefer to go into the elections with an unemployment rate near 10 percent or a rate below 9 percent?

As for Medicare, slashing payments to physicians is the Democrats’ favorite way of paying for expanding Medicaid enrollment and health-insurance subsidies for the non-poor. If they really think that will work, how can they possibly object to saving money sooner rather than later?

[Cross-posted at The Corner]

ObamaCare 3.0: Higher Implicit Taxes, Quicker Death Spiral

In a recent paper, I showed that the health care legislation passed by the House and Senate would impose punitive implicit tax rates on low- and middle-income workers.  Those bills would also result in higher health insurance premiums over time because they would create large financial incentives for healthy people to drop coverage and only purchase it when they become sick.

The health care proposal that President Obama released yesterday essentially splits the difference on most areas of disagreement between the two bills.  But a preliminary analysis shows that ObamaCare 3.0 would make these perverse incentives even worse.  Families of four earning $22,000 under the Senate bill (100 percent of the federal poverty level) or $30,000 under the House bill or the Obama plan (133 percent FPL) would face the following effective marginal tax rates as they climb the economic ladder:

  • Senate bill - Average: 62 percent.  High: 73 percent.
  • House bill -  Average: 74 percent. High: 82 percent.
  • Obama plan - Average: 72 percent. High: 90 percent.

In other words, over broad ranges of income, families of four would see their take-home pay rise by an average of 28 cents of each additional dollar earned.  In some cases, it would rise as little as 10 cents for each additional dollar earned.  Using smaller changes in income reveals the Obama plan would create EMTRs as large as 200 percent or higher.  That is, earning more money would leave many families worse off financially.

In addition, by requiring insurers to cover all applicants without regard to illness, each of these health plans would remove any penalty on waiting until you are sick to purchase coverage.  Therefore – even after accounting for all relevant taxes, subsidies, and penalties – these plans would create large financial incentives for healthy people to drop out of the market, which would cause premiums to rise for those who remain.  That would in turn encourage more healthy people to drop out, which would cause premiums to rise further, and so on.  Those perverse incentives are much worse under the Obama plan than under the House or Senate bills.  Here are the maximum financial incentives to drop coverage that each plan would create for families of four:

  • Senate bill: $8,000
  • House bill: $7,800
  • Obama plan: $9,900

By increasing the financial incentives to drop coverage, the Obama plan would cause private insurance markets to unravel even faster than the House and Senate bills would.

Obama Commands the Impossible

Today’s New York Times reports that President Obama has “ordered the rapid development of technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal,” as well as mandating the production of more corn-based ethanol and financing farmers to produce “cellulosic” ethanol from waste fiber.

You’ve got to like the president’s moxie.  Faced with his inability to pass health care reform and cap-and-trade, he now chooses to command the impossible and the inefficient.

Most power plants are simply not designed for carbon capture.  There isn’t any infrastructure to transport large amounts of carbon dioxide, and no one has agreed on where to put all of it.  Corn-based ethanol produces more carbon dioxide in its life cycle than it eliminates, and cellulosic ethanol has been “just around the corner” since I’ve been just around the corner.

However, doing what doesn’t make any economic sense makes a lot of political sense in Washington, because inefficient technologies require subsidies–in this case to farmers, ethanol processors, utilities, engineering and construction conglomerates, and a whole host of others.  Has the president forgotten that his unpopular predecessor started the ethanol boondogle (his response to global warming) and drove up the price of corn to the point of worldwide food riots? Hasn’t he read that cellulosic ethanol is outrageously expensive? Has he ever heard of the “not-in-my-backyard” phenomenon when it comes to storing something people don’t especially like?

Yeah, he probably has.  But the political gains certainly are worth the economic costs.  Think about it.  In the case of carbon capture, it’s so wildly inefficient that it can easily double the amount of fuel necessary to produce carbon-based energy.  What’s not to like if you’re a coal company, now required to load twice as many hopper cars?  What’s not to like if you’re a utility, guaranteed a profit and an incentive to build a snazzy, expensive new plant?  And what’s not to like if you’re a farmer, gaining yet another subsidy?