Archives: 07/2018

Multi-Billion Dollar Boondoggle at DOE

The federal government spends an unreal amount of taxpayer money cleaning up nuclear weapons sites. In this study at Downsizing Government, I noted that between 1990 and 2016, Congress spent $152 billion on nuclear cleanup, with about $6 billion more every year.

Where does the money go? About $5 billion has been spent at a facility in South Carolina called the Savannah River Site. In the study, I said, “The facility has a negligent safety culture, and environmental issues such as water contamination plagued it for years. Cleanup costs have soared. The construction of a mixed oxide fuel facility at the site was supposed to cost $5 billion, but the price tag has soared to $17 billion.”

The Wall Street Journal provided an update on the Savannah River boondoggle today:

The U.S. Energy Department says it is spending $1.2 million a day on a partially built South Carolina nuclear facility that it wants to abandon due to soaring costs.

Congress has continued funding construction of the plant, which would be used to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, despite a series of reviews casting doubt on the financial logic involved.

… The recent jousting marks the latest twist for the troubled Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. In 2007, U.S. officials said the so-called MOX plant would cost $4.8 billion and be completed by 2016. DOE officials today estimate it would cost $17.2 billion and take until 2048, assuming $350 million a year in federal funding.

… In 2014, the Energy Department concluded that plutonium could be disposed far more cheaply using a different method, known as “dilute and dispose.” The shift is opposed by South Carolina officials and members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

… From 2014 to 2016, Congress gave the Energy Department the same message: Keep building the MOX plant. Last year, Congress authorized the energy secretary to stop construction if evidence showed another method would cost less than half as much.

In May, Energy Secretary Rick Perry invoked the provision and prepared to halt construction in June. South Carolina sued, and U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs granted a preliminary injunction June 7 in the state’s favor, pending further litigation.

For more on energy spending, see www.downsizinggovernment.org/energy/energy-subsidies.

 

49 Nations Accept Asylees & Refugees at Higher Rates Than America

On numerous occasions, President Trump has described America’s asylum laws as the most accepting—or, in his words, “dumbest,” in the world. “When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave… only country in the World that does this!” he tweeted this month. But many other countries are much more accepting of asylum seekers than the United States is. In fact, the United States ranks 50th in the world in net increase in asylees, refugees, and people in similar situations as a share of its population since 2012.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publishes data on the number of refugees and asylum seekers in each country. From 2012 to 2017, UNHCR finds that the United States accepted a net increase of 654,128 asylees, refugees, and people in similar circumstances. That amounted to 0.2 percent of the U.S. population in 2017. As the Figure below shows, 49 other countries had higher rates of acceptance than the United States did. The average rate of acceptance for the top 50 countries was 1.2 percent of the population—six times higher than the U.S. rate.

Figure: Top 50 refugee-asylee receiving nations

In absolute terms, the United States does rank in the top 10, but it is important to control for the size of the population of the receiving country both to understand the likely effects of the absolute numbers on the country and to allow a legitimate comparison across countries. This is the same reason why per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a better measure of how wealthy people in a country are than just aggregate GDP. The Chinese are not seven times wealthier than Canadians because China’s GDP is seven times larger. In fact, Canadians are five times wealthier because Canada’s per capita GDP is five times larger. To understand how wealthy or how accepting a country is, the population of the country is as relevant as the size of its aggregate wealth or the absolute number of immigrants it accepts.

Venezuela: The Biggest Humanitarian Crisis That You Haven’t Heard Of

Venezuelans are fleeing their home country in large numbers due to the economic failure of socialism as well as the increasing authoritarianism of the Venezuelan government.  The economic collapse there, inflation reached tens of thousands of percent this year, and the escalating brutality of the Maduro dictatorship are creating a crisis unlike any faced in South America in decades – if ever.  This blog post will provide some information on the scale of the Venezuelan exodus and some suggestions for what other countries can do to mitigate problems caused by the flow of refugees and asylum seekers.   

Background

The roots of the current collapse of Venezuela run deep. Hugo Chavez became the president of Venezuela in 1999 and immediately set about concentrating economic power in the government and political power in himself personally.  He instituted tight government controls on capital, exchange rates, and started a more irresponsible monetary policy that created chaotic financial market conditions that further justified his nationalizations of business and confiscations of private property.  Revenues from the Venezuelan oil industry helped keep the government and economy afloat while the private economy suffered under increasingly harsh and punitive restrictions.  Chavez died in 2013 and was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro who continued Chavez’s economic policies and accelerated the concentration of political power in himself.  The collapse of oil prices beginning in 2014 exposed the economic damage wrought by Chavez and Maduro as inflation took off, GDP shrank, and Maduro’s regime responded with increasingly brutal police crackdowns that are continuing to today.  Most watchers of Venezuela conclude that the current death spiral began in 2015, the year after the decline in oil prices.    

The Scale of the Exodus

The number of people who have left Venezuela is staggering.  Estimates usually range from 1.6 million to 4 million Venezuelans have left their home country.  The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that about 2 million Venezuelans are living outside of Venezuela as of June 2018, a number that has increased by more than a million since 2015 but is still likely an underestimate.  For instance, the number of Venezuelans living in Columbia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Uruguay in June 2018 was over 1.85 million, up by a little less than one million since 2017. 

O Zones Fragment America

We do not need another rift between communities in our divided nation. But that is what Congress gave us with a provision in last year’s tax bill that imposed a patchwork of divisions spread across every state.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act created a complex new tax structure called “Opportunity Zones.” The law tasked governors with carving up their states into tax-favored O zones and tax-disfavored areas we can call NO zones. If investors and developers put a hotel in an O zone, they receive a federal capital gains tax break, but if they put the same project in a NO zone, no such luck.

Vanessa Brown Calder and I discuss Opportunity Zones in The Hill. But pictures are better than words in showing what an unfair mess Congress has created. The U.S. Treasury has posted a national map accessible here, but you get a better idea with these maps of various cities from Bloomberg.

On their way to work, members of Congress pass powerful lettering on the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law.” So why did they think it was OK to impose unequal tax rules on neighborhoods across the nation?

Since the 1960s, the federal government has made a hash of micromanaging local development through HUD and other spending bureaucracies. I fear O zones will accelerate federal meddling into local affairs on the tax side. Will the government start tying social-engineering regulations to the O zone tax rules like they have with spending aid to local governments?

Some features of federal tax law have differential effects on the states as a byproduct of the tax system’s structure. But the O zones are purposeful geographic discrimination. Aside from the unfairness, the new tax loopholes will fuel a 50-state lobbying frenzy by landowners and developers to be included in the O zones rather than the NO zones. Is it just coincidence that the founder of Quicken Loans owns lots of property in Detroit’s new O zones?

Below is the new O zone map for Washington, D.C. with the favored zones in yellow. If you own property at 5300 East Capitol St NE, federal tax law has just made you a winner. If you own property across the street at 5300 East Capitol SE, you are a loser. Local governments make lots of such winner/loser decisions, but we don’t need the federal government compounding the problem with its powerful and corrupting tentacles.

The best parts of the Republican tax law were a step forward for equal treatment, such as the capping of state and local tax deductions. It is unfortunate that a big new loophole goes in the opposite direction.    

Vanessa has further thoughts on O zones here.

Federal tax rules inducing local corruption? Check out the LIHTC.

Appraising MAGAnomics after 500 Days

A few weeks ago, President Trump surpassed his 500th day in office. That’s a good vantage point to appraise his economic policies to Make American Great Again.

Over at the Library of Economics and Liberty’s Econlog, I offer my assessment. It’s not good.

This may seem surprising, given current economic conditions. But economic policy isn’t merely about the current moment, but predominantly about improving economic conditions long-term. Aside from a couple provisions in the December 2017 tax law, President Trump has done precious little in that regard and much to harm the economy long-term, from borrow-and-spend fiscal policy, to harmful trade and immigration policies, to disinterest in serious regulatory reform, to his refusal to face the country’s dreay long-term fiscal challenges.

From my conclusion:

MAGAnomics appears to be little more than an impulsive dislike of free trade and immigration, a hazy desire for less regulation, disinterest in (or perhaps a lack courage to face) the nation’s long-term fiscal problems, and a desire to temporarily lower taxes without making the hard choices necessary to fiscally balance those cuts and make them enduring. In other words, MAGAnomics is a slogan supporting a few weak and many harmful initiatives, not a serious collection of policies thoughtfully designed to strengthen the nation’s economic health.

Take a look and see if you agree.

State Subsidies and Electricity Markets

In a Regulation article in 2013, Johnathan Lesser described how subsidies to renewable energy generators could actually increase electricity prices by reducing the profits and thus the long run supply of unsubsidized conventional alternatives like natural gas generators. 

According to Catherine Wolfram of the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, the predictions of Lesser have become reality. Natural gas generators in The Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland (PJM) regional electricity market have not received revenues sufficient to cover their capital costs in most years since 2009. Under such circumstances existing plants eventually will cease operation and no new plants will be built. Higher prices and uncertain supply are inevitable.

Calpine, an operator of natural gas plants, asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to require PJM to fix the generation capacity market—a government created market that pays firms for reserve generation capacity—to account for the subsidized competitors. Last month, FERC agreed with Calpine that the capacity market is currently “unjust and unreasonable” and issued an order requiring PJM to extend a price floor, which so far only applies to natural gas generators, to all resource types.

However, the FERC order falls short of the first best option: eliminating subsidies to all resources. Federal regulators, Congress, and states should work to repeal the regulations, mandates, and subsidies that complicate the capacity market. An even bolder move would be to mimic Texas, which has no capacity market; generators are paid only for the energy they generate. 

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.

Opportunity Zones … For Whom?

Yesterday, Chris Edwards and I co-authored a piece for The Hill on “opportunity zones.” Opportunity zones were one element of last year’s tax reform law.

They’re more or less what would happen if the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) produced offspring: opportunity zones both aim at generating economic development in declining areas (similar to CDBG) and use the tax code to incentivize public private partnerships (like LIHTC).

There are other similarities to CDBG and LIHTC. Opportunity zones may benefit investors and developers more than benefit the poor, which makes them like LIHTC.

The law has no provision to measure opportunity zone’s effectiveness, and measuring effectiveness would be hard anyway, which makes opportunity zones like CDBG. Currently, advocates simply cite the number of projects built with CDBG or LIHTC funding, which doesn’t tell a savvy information-consumer whether programs are meeting their objectives. 

As a result, opportunity zones will likely run on auto-pilot, while special interest groups claim it is effective based on the number of projects that were funded through the new tax mechanism. We won’t know how many of those projects would have been built anyway.

Lawyers, accountants, and financial advisors will make money advising investors and developers on program rules, who will then make money deferring and reducing their capital gains taxes.

There’s nothing wrong with cutting taxes, but opportunity zones are the wrong way to accomplish that. And national policy shouldn’t play favorites or pretend Congress or even state governors know where businesses or people should locate. (Hint: the best place for business and poor people to locate probably aren’t declining areas.) 

Rather than federal “help”, states can create their own state-wide opportunity zones by reforming their own tax codes and fixing their zoning, occupational licensing, and childcare regulations. Zoning regulations keep low-skilled workers trapped in declining places and excluded from economic opportunity, and occupational licensing makes it harder to relocate to new economic opportunities. 

Local reforms would really help poor workers, and regardless of whether they brought declining places back, they would improve poor worker’s ability to locate in non-declining places where the jobs are. Opportunity zones? Not so much.

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