Topic: Energy and Environment

Congress: The Least Dangerous Branch

That’s the topic of my Washington Examiner column this week. In it, I discuss last week’s budget battle and the failure of “policy riders” designed to rein in the Obama EPA’s attempts to regulate greenhouse gases without a congressional vote specifically authorizing it. The Obama team believes it has the authority to implement comprehensive climate change regulation, Congress be damned. Worse still, under current constitutional law–which has little to do with the actual Constitution–they’re probably right. Thanks to overbroad congressional delegation, “the Imperial Presidency Comes in Green, Too.” At home and abroad, the legislative branch sits on the sidelines as the executive state makes the law and wages war, despite the fact that “all legislative powers” the Constitution grants are vested in Congress, among them the power “to declare War.”

Yet, as I point out in the column, Congress retains every power the Constitution gave it–powers broad enough that talk of “co-equal branches” is a misnomer. Excerpt:

The constitutional scholar Charles Black once commented, “My classes think I am trying to be funny when I say that, by simple majorities,” Congress could shrink the White House staff to one secretary, and that, with a two-thirds vote, “Congress could put the White House up at auction.” (I sometimes find myself wishing they would.)

But Professor Black wasn’t trying to be funny: it’s in Congress’s power to do that. And if Congress can sell the White House, surely it can defund an illegal war and rein in a runaway bureaucracy.

If they don’t, it’s because they like the current system. And why wouldn’t they? It lets them take credit for passing high-minded, vaguely worded statutes, and take it again by railing against the bureaucracy when it imposes costs in the course of deciding what those statutes mean.

Last year, in the journal White House Studies [.pdf], I explored some of the reasons we’ve drifted so far from the original design:

Federalist 51 envisions a constitutional balance of power reinforced by the connection
between “the interests of the man and the constitutional rights of the place.” Yet, as NYU‘s Daryl Levinson notes, ―beyond the vague suggestion of a psychological identification between official and institution, Madison failed to offer any mechanism by which this connection would take hold…. for most members, the psychological identification with party appears greatly to outweigh loyalty to the institution. Levinson notes that when one party holds both branches, presidential vetoes greatly decrease, and delegation skyrockets. Under unified government, “the shared policy goals of, or common sources of political reward for, officials in the legislative and executive branches create cross-cutting, cooperative political dynamics rather than conflictual ones.”

Individual presidents have every reason to protect and expand their power; but individual senators and representatives lack similar incentive to defend Congress’s constitutional prerogatives. “Congress” is an abstraction. Congressmen are not, and their most basic interest is getting reelected. Ceding power can be a means toward that end: it allows members to have their cake and eat it too. They can let the president launch a war, reserving the right to criticize him if things go badly. And they can take credit for passing high-minded, vaguely worded statutes, and take it again by railing against the executive-branch bureaucracy when it imposes costs in the course of deciding what those statutes mean.

In David Schoenbrod’s metaphor, modern American governance is a “shell game,” with We the People as the rubes.  That game will go on unless and until the voters start holding Congress accountable for dodging responsibility.

GE and Obama: A Betrothal at the Altar of Industrial Policy

The angry Left has been calling for President Obama to fire Jeffrey Immelt from his position as head of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. I think that would be a good idea, but for different reasons.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Moveon.Org, and the regular scribes at the Huffington Post see Immelt, the chairman and CEO of General Electric, as unfit to advise the president because GE invests some of its resources abroad and, despite worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, paid no taxes in 2010. No illegalities are alleged, mind you; GE — like every other U.S. multinational — responds to incentives, including those resulting from tax policy and regulations concocted in Washington. 

But there are more substantive reasons for why Immelt is unfit to advise the president.  In particular, GE is a major player in several industries that President Obama has been promoting as part of his administration’s cocksure embrace of industrial policy. With over $100 billion in direct subsidies and tax credits already devoted to “green technology,” President Obama is convinced that America’s economic future depends on the ability of U.S. firms to compete and succeed in the solar panel, wind harnessing, battery, and other energy storage technologies. Concerning those industries, the president said: “Countries like China are moving even faster… I’m not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine of the future.”

Well, just yesterday GE announced plans to open the largest solar panel production facility in the United States, which nicely complements its role as the largest U.S. producer of wind turbines (and one of the largest in the world). The 2011 Economic Report of the President describes the taxpayer largesse devoted to subsidizing these green industries:

[T]he Recovery Act directed over $90 billion in public investment and tax incentives to increasing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, weatherizing homes, and boosting R&D for new technologies. Looking forward, the President has proposed a Federal Clean Energy Standard to double the share of electricity produced by clean sources to 80 percent by 2035, a substantial commitment to cleaner transportation infrastructure, and has increased investments in energy efficiency and clean energy R&D.

And Box 6.2 on page 129 of the 2011 ERP conveniently breaks out those subsidies by specific industry, most of which are spaces in which GE competes.

Tim Carney gave his impressions of this budding relationship between GE and the Obama administration in the DC Examiner last July:

First, there’s the policy overlap: Obama wants cap-and-trade, GE wants cap-and-trade. Obama subsidizes embryonic stem-cell research, GE launches an embryonic stem-cell business. Obama calls for rail subsidies, GE hires Linda Daschle [wife of former South Dakota Senator and Obama confidante Tom Dachle] as a rail lobbyist. Obama gives a speeeh, GE employee Chris Matthews feels a thrill up his leg. I could go on.

And Carney does go on in a December 2009 Examiner piece:

Look at any major Obama policy initiative — healthcare reform, climate-change regulation, embryonic stem-cell research, infrastructure stimulus, electrical transmission smart-grids — and you’ll find GE has set up shop, angling for a way to pocket government handouts, gain business through mandates, or profit from government regulation.

One month after President Obama proposed subsidizing high-speed rail because, in his words, ”everybody stands to benefit,” the head of GE’s Transportation division proclaimed, “GE has the know-how and the manufacturing base to develop the next generation of high-speed passenger locomotives. We are ready to partner with the federal government and Amtrak to make high-speed rail a reality.”

About the optics of these related events, Carney writes: “This was typical — an Obama policy pronouncement in close conjunction with a GE business initiative. It happens across all sectors of the economy and in all corners of GE’s sprawling enterprise.” And he goes on to list other examples.

Jeff Immelt should step down as head of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness because there is simply no avoiding a conflict of interest.  Even if he recommends courses of action to the president that don’t advance GE’s bottom line, it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t be an abrogation of his fiduciary responsibility to GE’s shareholders.

But more troubling is that Immelt and the president appear to be two peas in a pod when it comes to faith in government-directed industrial policy.  Immelt admires the German model of industrial policy because the Germans believe in “government and business working as a pack.”  He admires China’s “incredible unanimity of purpose from top to bottom.”  And days after Obama’s inauguration, Immelt wrote to shareholders:

[W]e are going through more than a cycle. The global economy, and capitalism, will be “reset” in several important ways. The interaction between government and business will change forever. In a reset economy, the government will be a regulator; and also an industry policy champion, a financier, and a key partner.

Citizens of a country that owes so much of its unmatched economic success to innovation and entrepreneurship and an absence of heavy-handed top-down mandates should be wary of the changes the presdient and Mr. Immelt are fostering.

Cato Unbound - There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Parking

This month at Cato Unbound we’re discussing a practical, everyday issue – parking!

Yes, Cato Unbound is supposed to cover big ideas, deep thoughts, and the like, but parking policy is both important in its own right and also points to what I consider a very interesting problem: Given a theoretical or abstract commitment to free markets, well, how do we get there in the real world? What would a free-market policy look like in this or that issue area?

The answer isn’t always obvious, and the map isn’t the territory. Parking is interesting in this respect and possibly helpful. Parking is all around us, most of us deal with it every day, and the unintended consequences of parking policy are I think maybe easier to see than the unintended consequences in other fields. Parking affects how we live, how we shop, and how we work. It touches our cities, our family life, our environment, and even our health. Learning to look for such unintended consequences is part of developing a political culture that values economic insights and puts them to work.

That’s why this month we’ve invited four urban economists, each of whom can fairly be said to value the free market. Still, there will be a few disagreements among them – as I said, the map isn’t the territory. Donald Shoup leads the issue with his essay “Free Parking or Free Markets?” – arguing that our expectation of abundant free parking is both bad for our communities and the product of anti-market planning.

The conversation will continue throughout the month, with contributions from Professor Sanford Ikeda, Dr. Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution, and Cato’s own Randal O’Toole. Be sure to stop by throughout the month, or else subscribe via RSS.

Energy Error Continued

When Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the presidency, he offered a core menu of curing everything by increased federal intervention in health care, education, and energy. Whenever new problems arose that lessened the urgency of earlier concerns, Obama has crafted assertions that his original prescriptions will also resolve the new difficulties. In energy, this has involved extending his program to new, even more dubious projects. He also has a habit of incessantly repeating the same tired arguments in the vain hope that his skill at persuasion will win the day.

His March 30, 2011 energy speech and accompanying Blueprint are typical. About the only differences between these and his June 15, 2010 speech on energy were more bad ideas. He added to the panic-driven slowdown in offshore oil and gas drilling permits, now rationalized as a prudent response; a post-Japan crisis review of nuclear power; and another for new methods of producing natural gas. For no good reason, he argued that Brazilian oil development needed U.S. government support despite the long history that successful oil development in some of the most backward countries in the world has occurred without major U.S. government aid. (In fact, the aid offered was an Export-Import Bank loan and thus more an exercise in crony capitalism than a useful move.)

Otherwise Obama continued to display the central characteristic of his philosophy — that he and his advisers possess such superior insight that they can guide the average American to better decisions. This is precisely the Progressive error that has led to the present political mess and the cause of the dramatic 2010 shift in the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives. Whenever concerns arise that he has overreached, he claims that he was doing the sensible thing.

His Blueprint constitutes Exhibit A in the case against this interventionism. It is essentially a list of the many mandates that Obama has achieved or desires, ranging from high-speed rail to micromanaging the design of every new building in the United States. This list is dominated by the many provisions of the infamous stimulus bill that indiscriminately threw money at every favored area including energy. Obama seems to believe that seeing where the money went will counteract the outrage at ill-conceived, unnecessary, and counterproductive spending. At least to energy specialists, what actually appears is resounding proof that the voters were right — every idea is bad.

The speech also showcased Obama’s talent at making dubious assertions. Many have commented that he does not deserve the credit that he seems to claim for the rise in U.S. oil output. The very long lead times, which Democrats traditionally use to oppose expanded oil-and-gas leasing, imply that the rise was facilitated by actions in prior administrations. An even greater whopper was his intimation that the existence of many undeveloped leases suggests that no rush exists to lease and license more. The more obvious criticism is that his cumbersome licensing policy contributes to the inability to develop. Less apparent is the likelihood that many of those leases proved, after further examination, to be unattractive while more promising areas are being withheld from leasing.

He similarly selected the most misleading possible way to understate U.S. oil-production potential. He indicated correctly that the United States has only 2 percent of world “proved” reserves of oil. What he ignored is that proved reserves cover only already-known sources and wild methodological differences among countries in how this is calculated make cross-country comparisons dubious. (This situation was worsened by 1970s hysteria. The highly efficient existing U.S. system was replaced because it was run by the supposedly untrustworthy industry. The government created its own far more expensive and far less satisfactory system.) The more reliable measure of actual production shows an 8.5 percent U.S. share in 2009. Neither measure satisfactorily indicates what really matters — the potential efficiently to add production. Obama thus adds to his prior unjustifiable aim to reduce petroleum use by also misstating the petroleum potential. Substantial oil imports remain desirable for the U.S. because of the underlying economics. Nevertheless, the federal government has imposed undesirable restrictions on oil and gas production.

Energy Independence: Obama Embraces the Department of Nutty Ideas

Every president since Richard Nixon has asserted that we are sitting ducks for those who brandish the oil weapon. To keep the evildoers at bay, the government must adopt policies that ensure our energy independence. Like his predecessors, President Obama is worshiping at this altar. And why not? How many elections have been lost by blaming foreigners for an impending crisis?

Despite their cynicism about politicians, most people actually believe that mineral resources, including oil, are doomed to disappear. It’s obvious: Start with a given stock of provisions in the cupboard, subtract consumption and eventually the cupboard will be bare.

But what is obvious is often wrong. We never run out of minerals. At some point it just costs too much to produce them profitably. In the 19th century, the big energy scare was in Europe. Most thought Europe was running out of coal. That doomsday scenario never materialized. Thanks to a plethora of substitutes, the prices that European coal could fetch today are far below its development and extraction costs. Consequently, Europe sits on top of billions of tons of worthless coal.

Once economics enters the picture, the notion of fixed reserves becomes meaningless. Reserves are not fixed. Proven oil reserves, for example, represent a warehouse inventory of the expected cumulative profitable output, not a fixed stock of oil thought to be in the ground.

When thinking about oil reserves, we must also acknowledge another economic reality: Oil is sold in a world market in which every barrel, regardless of its source, competes with every other barrel. Think globally, not locally. When we do, the dwindling reserves dogma becomes nonsense. In 1971, the world’s proven oil reserves were 612 billion barrels. Since then the world has produced approximately 990 billion barrels. We should have run out of reserves fourteen years ago, but we didn’t. In fact, today’s proven reserves are 1,354 billion barrels, or 742 billion barrels more than in 1971.

How could this be? Thanks to improved exploration and development techniques, costs have declined, investments have been made and reserves have been created. The sky is not falling.

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Pielke’s Problem

I generally admire the work of Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist in the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. His new book on climate change is refreshingly honest and non-ideological, if a bit overly technophilic. His broader work offers the important insight that science alone cannot direct public policy, but rather it can only lay out possible results of different policy choices.

Given the quality of his work, I was disappointed by Pielke’s op-ed in today’s NYT defending Congress’s legislated obsolescence of the incandescent light bulb. He argues that government standard-setting is an important contribution to human welfare, and the light bulb standard is just part of that standard-setting (though he does suggest some minor policy tweaks to allow limited future availability of incandescents). 

To justify his argument, Pielke points out the great benefit of government-established standard measures, as well as quality standards:

Indeed, [in the United States of the late 19th century] the lack of standards for everything from weights and measures to electricity — even the gallon, for example, had eight definitions — threatened to overwhelm industry and consumers with a confusing array of incompatible choices.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Germany’s standards agency, established in 1887, was busy setting rules for everything from the content of dyes to the process for making porcelain; other European countries soon followed suit. Higher-quality products, in turn, helped the growth in Germany’s trade exceed that of the United States in the 1890s.

America finally got its act together in 1894, when Congress standardized the meaning of what are today common scientific measures, including the ohm, the volt, the watt and the henry, in line with international metrics. And, in 1901, the United States became the last major economic power to establish an agency to set technological standards.

 Alas, this argument doesn’t support Pielke’s light bulb standard.

The weights-and-measures and product standards that he cites are examples of government response to market failures—instances where private action is unable to reach efficient results. Concerning weights and measures, a type of market failure known as the collective action problem can make it difficult to establish standard measures privately. Getting everyone to agree can be like herding cats, and there is ample incentive to secretly defect from that standard — e.g., a gas station would love to sell you a 120-ounce “gallon” that you assume is a standard 128 ounces. (OTOH, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem, such as the standardization of railroad track gauges in the late 19th century.) Likewise, quality standards can be understood as a response to a kind of market failure known as the information asymmetry problem— e.g., a producer of low-quality goods may knowingly try to pass them off as high-quality goods. (Again, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem.)

As libertarians, we recognize that there are market failures, and that government can sometimes mitigate them. (That’s why we’re not anarchists.) Also as libertarians, we recognize that government intervention can result in outcomes even less efficient than the original market failure. (That’s why we’re not run-of-the-mill Democrats or Republicans.)

But where is the market failure with incandescent bulbs? After nearly 125 years of use, people know the drawbacks and advantages of incandescents—that they use more electricity than other types of bulbs and have a shorter lifespan, but they cost very little and work much better in certain applications—from dimmer switches to Easy-Bake Ovens—than other bulbs. Besides, CFL bulbs were widely available before Congress’s 2007 legislation, and LED lights were already in the R&D pipeline.

Perhaps Pielke would argue that there is a market failure with incandescents: the negative externality of air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. But incandescent lighting is only one of many, many electricity-using devices, and electricity generation is just one of many, many sources of air pollution. So why the focus on just this one externality source instead of advocating a policy that broadly addresses emissions? And why devote his op-ed to discussing technology standards, and make no mention of air pollution?