Topic: Energy and Environment

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

Comparing a transit agency’s efficiency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.

Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.

So I suggest a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.

Many of the jitneys serve Atlanta’s Hispanic communities. One curiosity: according to one report, most MARTA drivers speak only English while most jitney drivers speak only Spanish.

Given that private operators provide transit service without subsidies, how can MARTA justify spending $400 million a year in taxpayer funds on transit? One reason is that MARTA spent $4 billion building a 52-mile rail system that serves a tiny fraction of the Atlanta metropolitan area. When counting amortized capital costs, this rail system costs about 50 percent more to operate, per vehicle mile, than MARTA buses, which themselves cost far more than private buses.

Construction of the rail system aimed to attract middle-class commuters out of their cars, but was done at the expense of limiting bus service to working-class neighborhoods. Although greater Atlanta’s population has grown by more than 150 percent since it started building rail transit, MARTA has done very little to expand bus service. As a result, transit’s share of Atlanta-area commuting declined from 11.0 percent in 1970 to 4.1 percent in 2010, which is hardly an endorsement of rail transit.

Contracting out and the other actions proposed in the KPMG audit can save a little money, but that savings will probably just be wasted on some other part of the transit system. In the long run, such reforms do little more than rearrange the deck chairs as the boat is sinking. Complete privatization would save Atlanta-area taxpayers more than a billion dollars every four years and still result in decent transit service to Atlanta neighborhoods that want and need it.

Amtrak Shrugged

Watching one of the first showings of Part II of Atlas Shrugged was a surrealistic experience for me after testifying earlier in the day (September 20) to the House Transportation Committee about Amtrak. In the movie, government officials piously argue that for the “greater good” they need to provide “guidance” to the nation’s capitalists—and the more guidance they give, the more capitalism fails, which naturally justifies even more guidance.

In the hearing, I testified that Amtrak can’t be reformed because, as a government entity, it will still be controlled by politics, and the only solution was privatization. This led Peter DeFazio, my own former congressman (I moved to an adjacent district four years ago) to reem me out for not having faith in government.

“You don’t believe government should run our air traffic control? You don’t believe government should run our highways? You don’t believe government should subsidize the Port of Los Angeles?” Before I could fully answer each question, he would roll his eyes and interrupt me with incredulous moans. Fortunately, one of the other committee members rescued me and gave me a chance to answer.

Ironically, one of DeFazio’s own questions should have been his undoing. Somehow, he didn’t think Americans could manage to buy cheap goods from Asia unless the federal government subsidized the Port of Los Angeles. Aside from the fact that he probably bemoans the import of cheap goods from Asia, why subsidize the Port of Los Angeles when there are so many other suitable West Coast ports—and in particular, the heavily underutilized Port of Coos Bay in DeFazio’s own district?

Of course, DeFazio also thinks the feds should subsidize the Port of Coos Bay. But given that the Los Angeles metro area has 12 million people and therefore some two dozen representatives in Congress, while the Coos Bay area has about 60,000 people and therefore a fraction of one representative, subsidies are mainly going to go to the former and not the latter even though the latter is a much better natural harbor.

But it was not just DeFazio who supported government control of the economy. Republicans and Democrats at the hearing were equally guilty of thinking that they, the enlightened representatives of the people, should decide where “investments” should be made in transportation, how much people should get paid, and who should produce what “for the greater good.”

“Everyone here believes in creating jobs,” said one Republican. I wanted to raise my hand and say, “No, I believe in creating wealth, not jobs. Your idea of ‘creating jobs’ destroys wealth by taking from some people the wealth they created and giving to others who aren’t creating it.” But I realized that by “everybody here,” the Member meant “every elected official in the room,” not us non-entities who were there to testify or witness the hearing.

Later, another Republican who had been critical of Amtrak’s losses said, “No one here wants to destroy Amtrak; we just want it to run more efficiently.” Once again, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “I want to destroy Amtrak, because Amtrak is spending phenomenal amounts of money running crappy trains.” But again, I restrained myself.

Rather than privatize Amtrak, at least some Republicans propose to contract out Amtrak’s trains to private operators. Congress would still decide where those trains should run. The Republicans who support this proposal would also require the private operators to honor Amtrak’s contracts with workers. Those two requirements would destroy most of the benefits of contracting out.

In Atlas Shrugged, a man named John Galt convinces all the smart people in the country to “go on strike” until the government fails from mediocrity. Fortunately, such a strike won’t be necessary in real life as the mediocre results of government control will lead to failure all by itself. We just have to hope that there is enough wealth left in the country that we can put it back together.

Hurricane Isaac and Louisiana

Hurricane Isaac is heading for Louisiana, and everyone is hoping that individuals and government agencies are ready for the onslaught. Seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina caused huge damage, but to a large extent ”it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster, created by lousy engineering, misplaced priorities, and pork-barrel politics,” noted journalist Michael Grunwald. Grunwald pointed his finger particularly at failures of the Army Corps of Engineers, as have others.

I’ve described the long troubled history of the Army Corps in this essay, including its Katrina failures. Hopefully, the Corps’ facilities will do a better job this time around, but ultimately I think citizens would be better served if the Corps’ activities were privatized or off-loaded to the states.

Here are five ways that the Army Corps magnified the damage done to people and property from Hurricane Katrina:

First, there were fundamental design flaws in Army Corps’ infrastructure around New Orleans. The levees failed in numerous places because of engineering and construction defects, such as the use of unstable soils in levee structures. Most of the flooding was due to water breaching the levees at weak points.

Second, the Corps’ extensive levee and floodwall structures throughout the New Orleans area encouraged development in dangerous, low-lying areas. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps was charged with improving the city’s flood protection, but “rather than focusing its full efforts on protecting the existing city, the Corps decided to spend millions of dollars to extend levees into the virgin wetlands of New Orleans East specifically for the purpose of spurring development.” That turned out to be a very bad idea: “Some of the areas in New Orleans where Katrina wreaked the greatest damage were intensively developed only recently as a result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control projects.”

Third, the Corps’ focus on building economic development infrastructure, such as ship channels, reduced available funds for hurricane protection. Louisiana had received $1.9 billion for Corps’ projects in the five years before Katrina, but only a small share was spent on protecting central New Orleans from possible hurricanes. Grunwald notes: “Before Katrina, the Corps was spending more in Louisiana than in any other state, but much of it was going to wasteful and destructive pork.”

Fourth, Corps’ infrastructure helped to deplete wetlands around New Orleans, which had provided a natural defense against hurricanes. The Corps’ navigation and flood control structures have caused silt from the Mississippi to disperse into the Gulf over the decades, rather than being naturally used to rebuild the wetlands. As writer John McPhee noted, “sediments are being kept within the mainline levees and shot into the Gulf … like peas through a peashooter, and lost to the abyssal plain.” As a result, the wetlands have shrunk decade after decade.

Fifth, the Corps’ Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel acted to funnel Hurricane Katrina into the heart of New Orleans. The 76-mile MRGO was built in 1965 at great expense based on optimistic projections of ship traffic, but the traffic never materialized. Constructing MRGO destroyed thousands of acres of protective wetlands, and it acted to channel salt water inland, which killed fresh water marshes and cypress forests. During Katrina, the channel is thought to have intensified the storm surge as it headed toward the city.

For more, see

How Much Sea Ice?

The New York Times reported yesterday that the Arctic Ocean sea ice has reached a new record low. “Record low” Arctic ice this summer depends upon what data is used. This year, low values are in part a result of a very unusual storm in early August that broke up a large amount of ice northwest of Alaska. When this remaining ice is counted—as it should be—the total ice is about a million square kilometers greater than in the record low year of 2007. It is also worth noting that sea-ice coverage in the Southern Hemisphere continues to increase in a statistically significant fashion, as has been noted for decades. 

A detailed summary of the various measurements of sea ice can be found here.

IRS Can’t Manipulate Tax Code to Generate More Revenue for Itself

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Matt Gilliam.

An American energy company called PPL bought one of many state-owned British utilities privatized in the 1980s. In 1997, PPL thus became subject to the UK’s new “windfall tax,” which was based in part on “profit-making value”—the utility’s average annual profit multiplied by an imputed price-to-earnings ratio.

Various American energy companies subject to this tax filed claims with the IRS for a “foreign income tax” credit, which the IRS denied in 2007, asserting that the British tax was not a creditable one under the “foreign income tax” provision of the Internal Revenue Code (Section 901). The IRS claimed that the windfall tax did not satisfy the “predominant character” standard (was not predominantly an income tax) because the British statute used the term “profit-making value” instead of “net income” and “gross receipts,” and the tax rate was defined “as a percentage of an imputed value … rather than directly as a percentage of net income.”

After the federal tax court held that PPL was entitled to the foreign tax credit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. Explaining that a tax exemption is a privilege extended by legislative grace, the appellate court held the tax not to be creditable because it reached beyond realized profit and did not tax actual gross revenue. In a different case last year, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the British windfall tax was indeed creditable because (1) it reached realized income and (2) gross revenue was an inherent part of the calculation. The Fifth Circuit explained that the form and label of the foreign tax are not determinative and that the predominant character standard requires the IRS to analyze the history and intent of a tax to assess whether it tries to reach some net gain.

Cato now joins Southeastern Legal Foundation and Goldwater Institute on an amicus brief in urging the Supreme Court to take PPL’s case because it implicates fundamental issues of property rights, free markets, and the arbitrary exercise of government power—and the circuit split creates uncertainty for American businesses overseas. We argue that taxpayers have the right to be free from double taxation and that here the IRS and Third Circuit improperly disregarded the substance of the windfall tax and applied an overly rigid construction of its terms.

Ultimately, a foreign tax’s form or label cannot mask its substantive character and intent for legal purposes. American businesses operating overseas should be able to rely on a stable, substantive application of U.S. tax law instead of arbitrary interpretations and constructions manipulated to generate payments to the IRS.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to hear PPL Corp. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

The Lacey Act: Protectionism through Criminalization

This week Gibson Guitars reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice to end a highly publicized criminal case involving wood imported in violation of the law of Madagascar.  Gibson was accused of violating the Lacey Act, an old federal law that since 2008 has made importation, sale, or possession of certain forest products a criminal offense.  The case gained notoriety after FBI agents conducted fully-armed surprise raids of Gibson’s Tennessee facilities and confiscated up to a million dollars worth of wood and guitars.  The move was condemned by politicians and activists concerned about over-criminalization and heavy handed enforcement by the federal government, and efforts have begun to reform the law’s most draconian provisions.

You can often learn a lot about a law by identifying its key supporters.  It’s worth noting, therefore, that proponents of the current restrictions in the Lacey Act include not just the predictable cadre of environmental organizations but also the American lumber industry and labor unions.  Why this peculiar alliance among traditional enemies?  As it turns out, the cost of compliance with reporting requirements and the risk of being slammed with huge fines and a criminal indictment for paperwork errors produce strong incentives to avoid buying foreign lumber altogether.  American consumers of lumber, which include productive, job-creating businesses like Gibson Guitars, cannot reasonably control whether a foreign supplier got all the right licenses and followed all local laws.  Ultimately, the Lacey Act enables domestic suppliers to avoid price-squeezing import competition in a way that harms law-abiding foreign suppliers, American consumers, and all sectors of the U.S. economy that make or use wood products.

The willingness to use government to achieve one’s ends can certainly produce strange bedfellows.  Protectionists these days like to paint their foreign competitors as devious cheaters whose unscrupulous ways give them an “unfair” advantage that the U.S. government should fix with trade barriers.  The effectiveness of this strategy prompted the tree-killing industry to team up with tree-hugging environmentalists to label their foreign competitors (and their own potential customers) as perpetrators or supporters of illegal logging and deforestation.  Environmentalists should remember, however, how that same finger-pointing rhetoric was used to justify the imposition of punitive duties on Chinese solar cell and wind tower manufacturers, and that free trade is the best path to advancing affordable clean energy in the United States and the world.

Perhaps one day environmentalists will embrace free-market solutions to both clean energy and forest maintenance, and all businesses will respond to import competition by improving quality and efficiency.  Until then, free traders will need to be eternally vigilant and willing to challenge protectionism in all its forms.  Reforming the Lacey Act is a good way to start.

Denver Fools the Wall Street Journal

“Denver rethinks the modern commuter,” heralds the Wall Street Journal. The article goes on to say that, instead of building parking lots at its rail stations, Denver is encouraging developers to build high-density, mixed-use developments. Somehow, this is supposed to be news.

Let’s think this through. First of all, no one is “rethinking the modern commuter.” The Census Bureau reports that transit carried less than 5 percent of Denver-area commuters in 2010, while more than 85 percent drove. Instead, what RTD, Denver’s transit agency, is rethinking is the role of public transit.

The old-style public transit system used cheap, flexible buses whose routes could be altered overnight to take people from where they were to where they wanted to go. When Denver first built rail, it substituted expensive but glamorous trains for inexpensive buses, but still allowed people to go from where they were–provided they were willing to drive to a park-and-ride station–to where they wanted to go–provided they wanted to go downtown.

Under RTD’s latest “rethink,” transit will no longer take people from where they are to where they want to go. Instead, planners will try to coerce and entice people to live in places served by rail transit and go where those rail lines go. On one hand, this is far more intrusive on people’s lifestyles; on the other hand, it is a far more limited view of the purpose of transit. Instead of “mobility for those who can’t or don’t want to drive,” the new purpose is “mobility for those who are willing to completely rebuild their lifestyles around transit.”

This has been tried before, of course, most notably in Portland. How well did it work there? In 1980, under the old bus-transit model, transit carried 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters to work. By 2010, with seven different rail lines and scores of transit-oriented developments, transit carried just 7.1 percent of the region’s commuters to work.

The sad part is that the Wall Street Journal not only thinks this is newsworthy, but that it is laudable. In fact, it is government at it worst: inefficient, coercive, and unable to learn from past mistakes.

Transit should serve people and not the other way around. It is time to rethink the rethink.