Tag: subsidy

The Ex-Im Bank and Crony Capitalism

My esteemed colleague Sallie James broke ground last summer with an excellent expose of the corporate welfare role played by the Export-Import Bank of the United States.  Until this past weekend, Sallie’s had been about the only analysis in the public domain to find the Ex-Im Bank’s activities unseemly, market-distorting, and anathema to free market capitalism.

Thus, I was heartened to see that an editorial in the last Saturday/Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal picked up on Sallie’s theme and emphasized some of her most salient points.  Hopefully, the WSJ and other prominent news outlets read and amplify Sallie’s follow-up, forthcoming analysis, which shines some light on ExIm’s growing role in the business of financing the domestic sales of select U.S. companies.

‘Subsidy Risk’ in Green Tech

Two-and-a-half years ago, I attended a venture capital conference that focused a good deal on “clean tech.” I wasn’t impressed.

[T]he current vogue for “clean tech” differs from the information technology revolution that has done so much for the economy and society. Venture investors may be turning to government subsidy and regulatory advantage for their portfolio businesses, rather than producing to meet a market demand. “Going green” may mean “going red” in at least two senses—a more socialist political economy and a government even deeper in debt.

Essaying to instill some doubts among investors who were banking on “political will,” I asked pointedly how VCs assessed subsidy risk and the vagaries of public policy. The responses weren’t insightful or memorable.

Some vindication of my doubts comes in an article called “The Crisis in Clean Energy” ($) by David Victor and Kassia Yanosek in the July/August Foreign Affairs.

In the United States, most clean-energy subsidies come from the federal government, which makes them especially volatile. Every few years, key federal subsidies for most sources of clean energy expire. Investment freezes until, usually in the final hours of budget negotiations, Congress finds the money to renew the incentives—and investors rush in again. As a result, most investors favor low-risk conventional clean-energy technologies that can be built quickly, before the next bust.

Elsewhere, they write, “With clean energy suffering from long time horizons, high capital intensity, and a heavy dependence on fickle public policies, some Silicon Valley venture firms are scaling back or even canceling their ‘clean tech’ investment arms.”

Alas, Victor and Yanosek don’t call for the federal government to clear the field so entrepreneurialism can flourish. They offer three bland “shifts in approach” that amount to more of the same. Until the federal government does clear the field, watch for the subsidy muddle in green tech to suppress profound innovations while government-directed investment brings modest returns to investors/tax-consumers at the expense of taxpayers.

Should There Be ‘Shared Sacrifice’?

At the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, I take on the argument made, for instance, by President Obama in his Friday news conference:

We should not be asking sacrifices from middle-class folks who are working hard every day, from the most vulnerable in our society – we should not be asking them to make sacrifices if we’re not asking the most fortunate in our society to make some sacrifices as well.

I call that a fundamentally flawed argument:

The main thing our government does these days, despite the lack of any constitutional authority for it, is tax some people and transfer money to other people. …But there is no moral equivalence in the two sides of the transfer system. On the one hand, the government takes money by force from people who have earned it. On the other hand, it gives some of that money to people who have not earned it. Taking yet more money that people have earned is simply not equivalent to reducing the size of a government transfer.

There is, however, one way that we could ask businesses and the rich to join in the deficit-reduction effort:

But here’s a way to satisfy both those who see spending as the problem and those who want the highest-taxed Americans to pay yet more: Start cutting subsidies to businesses and the rich. Let’s cut out the big-business subsidy machine, the Export-Import Bank. Let’s get rid of farm subsidies. Let’s tell affluent people who build houses in coastal flood areas to pay for their own flood insurance at market prices.

Read the whole thing.

How Not to Criticize Medicare Vouchers

Over at The Incidental Economist, Austin Frakt challenges a couple of claims I made on NPR about Medicare reform.  (Here’s how NPR reported my comments in print.)

My claims are pretty simple.

  1. If Medicare subsidizes enrollees by giving them a fixed amount of money, much like Social Security does, they would be more cost-conscious than they are under the current open-ended subsidy, because enrollees who avoid wasteful spending would themselves get to keep the savings.  Put more plainly, people spend their own money more carefully than they spend other people’s money.
  2. Health insurers and health care providers would compete to serve these cost-conscious Medicare enrollees on the basis of both cost and quality.  Prices would fall while quality improves.

I’m not really sure to what extent all this would occur under the Medicare reforms the House passed a couple of weeks ago, because we don’t yet know to what extent each enrollee’s subsidy would resemble a fixed amount of money.

Here’s what Frakt does with my claims:

[A]s I heard these words I wondered if we had any evidence on hand about the relationship between lower premium subsidies and health care cost inflation. Indeed we do! Premiums in the commercial market are subsidized by the government at a lower rate than those in Medicare. [Emphasis added.]

He then throws up the chart, shown below the jump, showing that for common benefits, the rate of growth in per-enrollee spending is “pretty similar” in Medicare and private insurance.  He concludes: “With data like this, I think we need to reexamine some of our theories about what lower premium subsidies can do.”

Oy, where to begin?

First, Frakt does not actually challenge my claim.  My claim is that voucher-like Medicare reforms will lead to reductions in the per-unit cost of producing certain goods and services, and therefore to lower prices. Frakt responds with data on health care spending.  When someone predicts that P will fall, introducing into evidence what has historically happened to P x Q is no kind of rebuttal. The confusion Frakt sows is rooted in the fact that both prices and spending can be accurately described as costs.  Such confusion could be avoided were everyone to honor Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy: Never say costs when you mean spending.

Second, though the tax preference for employer-sponsored health insurance distorts relative prices the same way an open-ended subsidy does, it is not a subsidy.  This isn’t really relevant to the matter at hand, but it’s worth emphasizing to avoid such silliness as this.

Third, it would be great if there existed one chart that would settle once and for all whether Medicare or a free market does a better job of containing costs.  Alas, this is not that chart.  Frakt uses it to make a less-ambitious point about the effects of larger versus smaller policy-induced price distortions, but its shortcomings nevertheless confound that comparison, too.  In addition to measuring increases in spending (whose effect on social welfare is ambiguous) rather than increases in cost (which are always bad), this chart handicaps private insurance by leaving off three or four years of explosive growth in per-enrollee Medicare spending (1966-1969).  Worse, it reeks of endogeneity problems.  Amy Finkelstein finds evidence that Medicare itself increases spending among those with private insurance (mostly by increasing hospital capacity), and that this effect has grown over time.   Moreover, as Medicare spending rises, so do average marginal tax rates, which increases the price distortion created by the tax exclusion, which increases spending on private insurance.  For all the play it gets on the Left, this chart serves no useful purpose that I can discern.  Economists should be embarrassed to use it.  If it were a farm animal, and social scientists farmers, they would have to take it behind the barn and put a bullet in its head.

Fourth, we are not yet at the point where we need to reexamine the theory that demand curves slope downward.  There is ample evidence to show that Medicare enrollees will respond to voucher-like reforms by choosing more economical health plans, and that health plans and providers will respond with greater efficiency.  Thomas Buchmueller reports:

Two notable experiments…took place in the mid-1990s: the University of California (UC) and Harvard University both offered a menu of plans that varied in generosity, but adopted a “fixed dollar contribution” policy. The plans also varied significantly in cost, so employees had a greater incentive to consider price when selecting a health plan…

In both cases, employees were quite sensitive to price, and were willing to switch plans to save as little as $5 per month in out-of-pocket premiums…In addition to this demand response, participating insurers lowered their premiums in order to compete for enrollment.

Fifth, there is plenty of evidence that prices can and do fall in health care – from research on the markets for laser-eye and cosmetic surgery, to the work of Clay Christensen and his colleagues, to the research of David Cutler and Mark McClellan.  (If spending increases while prices are falling, it is because changes in Q dominate changes in P – which could be due to all these open-ended government subsidies and other price distortions.)

Finally, as a response to the general theme of that NPR story: we’re a long, long way from the point where we have to worry that reductions in the growth of Medicare spending are going harm enrollees’ health.  Relying on data from the Dartmouth Atlas, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers reminds us that “nearly 30 percent of Medicare’s costs [spending!] could be saved without adverse health consequences.”  And there is plenty of evidence, from the RAND Health Insurance Experiment and elsewhere, that plans with greater cost-sharing or care management reduce utilization without harming patients’ health.

I cannot fathom what has opponents of Medicare vouchers so spooked.  It cannot be the effects that vouchers would have on Medicare enrollees and taxpayers.

We Must Protect This Failing House! (And To Heck With the Kids In It)

The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” website is once again hosting a forum on education, to which I have contributed some thoughts. The topic: whether there should be federal tax credits for home schoolers.

I won’t rehash my contribution – obviously, you can read it right on the site – but I wanted to respond quickly to two other entries.

The first is from Chester Finn, president of our favorite conservative sparring partner in education, the Thomas B. Fordham Instititute. I just want to thank him for substantiating a warning I offer in my contribution: Create federal home-schooling credits and don’t be surprised if you also get requirements that home schoolers be judged on stultifying standardized tests.  It’s exactly what Finn calls for:

In return for the financial help, however, home-schooled students should be required to take state tests, just as they would do in regular school, charter school or virtual schools. And if they don’t pass those tests, either the subsidy vanishes or the kids must enroll in some sort of school with a decent academic track record.

The second person I want to respond to is former Bush II official Susan Neuman, who generally offers the right advice by warning even more starkly than I did that home schoolers demanding tax credits are making a deal with the regulatory devil. That’s fine, as is her reporting that by what indications we have “children who have been home-schooled do remarkably well, attending well-respected colleges and universities and going on to successful careers.” Unfortunately, all that was preceded by the Reductio ad Hitlerum of education debates: Smearing any effort to even the playing field between public schools and other educational arrangements as an “attempt … to destroy public education.”

I know that this will never catch on with people determined to preserve public schools’ near-monopoly on tax dollars no matter how well other arrangements actually educate children (not to mention serve taxpayers and society overall), but it is time to stop treating public education as if it is synonymous with public schools! Indeed, you demonstrate more dedication to public education if you fight to get kids access to the best education wherever it is offered than if you make your ultimate goal preserving government schools. Yet the monopoly defenders insist on smearing choice advocates as being at war with public education.

Stop with this trashy tactic. Wanna say supporters of educational choice are at war with public schools? Fine. But with public education? Sorry – if anything, they’re the ones truly fighting to get the best possible education for all.

Obama and Infrastructure

The President is continuing his push for the federal government to go deeper into debt in order to fund infrastructure projects. While nobody disputes that the country has infrastructure needs, the precarious nature of federal and state finances indicate that policymakers need to starting thinking outside the box. Specifically, policymakers should be looking to make it easier for the private sector to fund and operate infrastructure projects.

As my colleagues Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren have explained, the main problem with government infrastructure spending is the lack of efficiency:

More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

A lot of what the the president wishes to spend taxpayer money on – for example, high-speed rail – is of questionable economic value. Unfortunately, policymakers all too often allocate resources on the basis of politics rather than economics.

For more on this topic, interested readers should check out our essays on the Department of Transportation. Also, an essay on privatization argues that “The benefits to the federal budget of privatization would be modest, but the benefits to the economy would be large as newly private businesses would innovate and improve their performance.”