Tag: subsidies

New Paper: Why Sustainability Standards for Biofuel Production Make Little Economic Sense

The U.S. sustainability standard currently requires ethanol production to emit at least 20% less CO2 than the gasoline it is assumed to replace. In a new study, authors Harry de Gorter and David R. Just argue that sustainability standards for ethanol are, by definition, illogical and ineffective. Moreover, say de Gorter and Just, those standards divert attention from the contradictions and inefficiencies of ethanol import tariffs, tax credits, mandates, and subsidies, all of which exist whether ethanol is sustainable or not.

Cato Launches New Web Site Exposing Wasteful Government Spending

Did you know that the average American family spends $1,000 each year on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whether or not it consumes that agency’s services?  Or that the federal government annually spends $1,500 per household on net interest costs alone?

In an ongoing effort to shed light on runaway government spending and expose wasteful government programs, Cato launched a new Web site today that examines the federal budget department-by-department to see which agencies can be reformed or terminated. DownsizingGovernment.org describes which programs are wasteful, damaging and obsolete in an era of trillion-dollar deficits.

The research exposes that many public outlays—though vigorously defended by the politicians who created them and the constituencies they purport to help—are remarkably ineffective at achieving their core aims.

Here are just a few examples:

Appearing on CNBC Monday, DownsizingGovernment.com editor Chris Edwards explained more about the site:

Plus, keep track of where your tax dollars are going by following DownsizingGovernment.com on Twitter (@DownsizeTheFeds) and Facebook.

“Keep Your Subsidies off My Ovaries”

In my recent Cato paper, “All the President’s Mandates: Compulsory Health Insurance Is a Government Takeover,” I explain that if Congress compels Americans to purchase health insurance, it would “inevitably and unnecessarily open a new front in the abortion debate, one where either side—and possibly both sides—could lose.”

Slate’s William Saletan explains how the pro-choice side could lose:

This week, the Senate finance committee is considering amendments that would bar coverage of abortions under federally subsidized health insurance. Pro-choice groups are up in arms. After all, says NARAL Pro-Choice America, “In the current insurance marketplace, private plans can choose whether to cover abortion care—and most do.” If Congress enacts subsidies that exclude abortion, “women could lose coverage for abortion care, even if their private health-insurance plan already covers it!“…

The argument these groups make is perfectly logical: If you standardize health insurance through federal subsidies and coverage requirements, people might lose benefits they used to enjoy in the private sector. But that’s more than an argument against excluding abortion. It’s an argument against health care reform altogether.

Saletan also explains why pro-life and pro-choice positions on Obama’s health plan are irreconcilable:

To get what they consider neutrality, pro-choicers have to make pro-lifers pay indirectly for abortions. And to keep what they consider clean hands, pro-lifers have to make abortion coverage federally unsupportable and therefore, in a subsidy-dependent system, commercially nonviable.

Rather than an argument against all health care reform, I’d say this is an argument against reforms that expand government subsidies or otherwise give government the power to choose what kind of insurance you purchase.  Fortunately, there are better ways to reform health care.

Geithner Ignores Bailout History

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Obama plan to “reform” our financial system is the impact it would have on the market perception surrounding “too big to fail” institutions.  In identifying some companies as “too big to fail” holders of debt in those companies would assume that they would be made whole if those companies failed.  After all, that is what we did for the debt-holders in Fannie, Freddie, AIG, and Bear.  Both former Secretary Paulson and Geithner appear under the impression that moral hazard only applies to equity, despite debt constituting more than 90% of the capital structure of the typical financial firm.

Geithner believes he’s found a way to solve this problem - he’ll just tell everyone that there isn’t an implicit subsidy, and there won’t be a list of “too big to fail” companies.  Great, why didn’t I think of that.  After all, the constant refrain in Washington over the years that Fannie and Freddie weren’t getting an implicit subsidy really prepared the markets for their demise.

Even more bizarre is Geithner’s assertion that the government can force these institutions to hold higher capital, maintain more liquidity and be subjected to greater supervision, all without anyone knowing who exactly these companies are.  Does the Secretary truly believe that these companies’ securities disclosures won’t include the amount of capital they are holding?  Whether there is an official list or not is besides the question, market participants will be able to infer that list from publicly available information and the actions of regulators. 

One has to wonder whether Geithner spent any of his time at the NY Fed actually watching how markets work.  Before we continue down the path of financial reform, maybe it would be useful for our Treasury Secretary to take a few weeks off to study what got us into this mess.  We’ve already been down this road of denying implicit subsidies and then providing them after the fact. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

That Costly Mandate

The Wall Street Journal notes that Sen. Max Baucus’s allegedly moderate health care plan “would increase the cost of insurance and then force people to buy it, requiring subsidies. Those subsidies would be paid for by taxes that make health care and thus insurance even more expensive, requiring even more subsidies and still higher taxes.” Other than that, it’s not so bad. The Journal also digs up a great graphic produced by the 2008 presidential campaign of a little-known Illinois senator named Barack Obama:

hillarycare

And speaking of health care mandates and how much they’re going to cost young people, as the Washington Post was yesterday, I just had lunch with Clark Ruper, program manager for Students for Liberty, who told me he’d be on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS tonight. In the interview he told them that as a young healthy person he has voluntarily chosen not to purchase health insurance and instead invests in his own savings. And he thinks a lot of young people make such choices and don’t want a government mandate requiring them to buy government-approved insurance. Check it out tonight on PBS.

Response to Matthew Yglesias re: Uncle Sam’s $4 Million Bike Rack

In response to my criticism of the new federally-financed $4 million bike center set to open at Union Station in Washington, DC, Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias says:

I look forward to the day when the Cato Institute does a blog post denouncing each and every publicly financed parking lot or garage in the United States of America.

I’ll take that bait…sort of…

I denounce each and every federally financed parking lot or garage in the United States of America on non-federal property.  I’m one of those quaint individuals who recognizes that the Constitution grants the federal government specific enumerated powers.  Using federal tax dollars to finance local parking garages, lots, bike centers and racks is not one of the powers granted to the federal government.  So let me rephrase my statement from yesterday: Look, I harbor no animosity against [car drivers], but under what authority — legal or moral — does the federal government tax me in order to build [parking garages or lots] for parochial, special interests?

By the way, for an excellent study on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local government, please see my colleague Chris Edwards’ “Federal Aid to the States: Historical Cause of Government Growth and Bureaucracy.”

Here are a few additional random thoughts…

I know so-called “progressives” like Yglesias don’t lose sleep over how much money the federal government spends, but $4 million to park a hundred or so bikes?  As Chris Moody noted to me today, if bike security is the major issue, why not pay a guard $12 an hour to stand watch?bike rack

Isn’t it possible, just possible, that a bike center with even more racks could have been built for a lot less?  Isn’t that the question that people like Yglesias, who want more people on bikes and less in cars, should be asking?

I don’t see anything inherently governmental about building and operating parking garages or bike centers.  The absolutely sorriest, most poorly run parking garage system I’ve ever experienced is the one managed by the State of Indiana where I used to work.  I recall an overcrowding situation – exacerbated by lousy management – in which the solution put forward was to just build another garage.  Hey, someone else is going to pay for it so who cares, right?  I often tell people that young libertarians should spend a couple years working in the bowels of government in order to reinforce their belief system with hands-on experience.  I’m starting to think “progressives” and other unwavering fans of all-things-government should do the same.

Funding ACORN

The ACORN scandal provides a good opportunity for citizens concerned about profligacy in Washington to explore some of the tools available to find out where their tax money goes.

A good place to start your research is the Federal Audit Clearinghouse on the Census website. All groups receiving more than $500,000 a year from the government are required to file a report. Just type in “ACORN” as the entity and the system pops up the group’s filings. My assistant John Nelson summarized the federal programs and amounts received by ACORN in recent years:

2003

Housing Counseling Assistance $1,168,388

Community Development Block Grants $388,273

Home Investment Partnership $8,000

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $204,082

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $85,000

Total $1,853,743

2004

Housing Counseling Assistance $2,209,009

Community Development Block Grants $221,007

Home Investment Partnership Program $21,092

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $127,183

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $105,000

Total $2,683,291

2005

Housing Counseling Assistance $2,605,558

Community Development Block Grants $367,560

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $153,082

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $140,917

Total $3,267,117

2006

Housing Counseling Assistance $1,955,074

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $59,541

Rural Housing and Economic Development $47,619

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $150,000

Community Development Block Grants $238,809

Total $2,451,043

2007

Housing Counseling Assistance $1,813,011

Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity $46,608

Rural Housing and Economic Development $30,504

Fair Housing Initiatives Program $60,000

Community Development Block Grants $372,950

Total $2,323,073

My colleague, Tad DeHaven, has discussed why these HUD programs that funded ACORN ought to be abolished completely.

Subsidy information is also available from IRS Form 990, which is filed by all non-profit groups and compiled at Guidestar and other websites. I am not an expert on this data, but Velma Anne Ruth of ABS Community Research has done a detailed analysis, which she kindly sent to me. She finds that federal funding for ACORN was about $1.7 million in 2008 and about $2.2 million in 2009.

Finally, a user-friendly website to research recipients of federal grants and contracts is www.usaspending.gov.

ACORN’s share of overall federal subsidies is tiny, but as thousands of similar organizations have become hooked on 1,800 different federal subsidy programs, a powerful lobbying force has been created that propels the $3.6 trillion spending juggernaut. ACORN’s own website touts its lobbying success in helping to pass various big government programs. So cutting off ACORN is a start, but just a small start at the daunting task of cutting back the giant federal spending empire.