Posts tagged ‘Subsidies’

Subsidies Beget Subsidies

So after spending billions to subsidize the construction and operation of wind farms, Britain has discovered that their output variability is a problem and that they produce too much of their power at night (issues many of us predicted long before they were built).  So now England is facing the policy choice of either a) paying wind farm owners to NOT product power or b) paying factory owners to switch their operations to night time.  Seriously.  For most areas, wind is among the worst possible electricity source.

This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

Where Did Those First Solar Subsidies Go? $32 Million went to their Failed CEO

It would be impossible to trace all the ways taxpayer money ends up in the coffers of solar manufacturers like First Solar.  Most of First Solar's money has been made selling panels in Germany to solar plants that, by law, can rape electricity customers with prices 10-15x higher than the market price for electricity.  First Solar also benefits more directly from direct subsidies, loan guarantees, "retraining" subsidies and even government Ex-Im Bank loans to sell panels to itself.  While First Solar vehemently denies it is a subsidy whore, it is telling that when Germany began to cut its solar feed-in tariffs, First Solar's stock price fell from over $300 to around $20.  Just watch day to day trading of First Solar stock, it does not move on news about its efficiency or productivity, it moves on rumors of changes in government subsidies.

Let's look at one subsidy.  In 2010, the Obama administration gave First Solar a subsidy of $16.3 million, ostensibly to help open a new plant in Ohio.  But it is interesting that this private company, which apparently could only raise the $16.3 million it needed by taking it by force from taxpayers, had plenty of money to pay its CEO.  In the 13 months leading up to its $16.3 million taken from taxpayers, First Solar paid its new CEO $29.85 million!  

Rob Gillette, the ousted CEO of First Solar Inc., earned more than $32 million in compensation from the struggling company for his two years of service, according to a regulatory filing Wednesday.

Gillette came to First Solar from Phoenix-based Honeywell Aerospace in October 2009 and was fired by the Tempe-based solar company's board of directors in October 2011....

Most of his compensation came in the three months of 2009 that he worked, when his total compensation, including salary, bonus, stock and options awards and other perks, reached $16.55 million. In 2010 his total compensation was $13.3 million, and last year he earned $2.46 million, which consisted of $763,000 in base salary and a $1.7 million severance.

Yep, they can't scrape up $16.3 million of their own money for a factory but they can find $30 million to give to an unproven CEO they eventually had to ride out on a rail.

By the way, I don't know Mr. Gillette, but I was once an executive at Honeywell Aerospace for several years.  I can tell you that it's a great place to find an executive who is focused on process to manage large complex organizations in a relatively stable business where manufacturing, logistics, and schmoozing large buyers is important.  It is a terrible, awful place to seek an executive for a fast growing business that needs to rapidly shift business strategies and where grinding through the process gets the wrong answer 12 months too late.

WTF? This is What They Mean by Oil and Gas Subsidies?

When the Left has talked about oil and gas subsidies, I have generally nodded my head and agreed that any such things should be eliminated, just as they should be eliminated for all industries.   They have in the past thrown out huge numbers for such subsidies that seemed high, but I have not really questioned them.  But then I see this chart at Kevin Drum's site

Seriously, nearly half the "subsidy" number is the ability of a company to use LIFO accounting on inventory for their taxes?  Since the proposition is to eliminate these only for oil and gas, what is the logic that somehow LIFO accounting is wrong in Oil and Gas but OK in every other industry?   In fact, at least the first two largest items are both accounting rules that apply to all manufacturing industry.  So, rather than advocating for the elimination of special status for oil and gas, as I thought the argument was, they are in fact arguing that oil and gas going forward be treated in a unique and special way by the tax code, separate from every other manufacturing industry.

In fact, many of these are merely changes to the amortization and depreciation rate for up-front investments.  Typically, politicians of both parties have advocated for the current rules to encourage investment.  Now I suppose we are fine-tuning the rules, so that we encourage investment in the tax code in everything but oil and gas.  I will say this does seem to be consistent with Obama Administration jobs policy, which has been to try to stimulate businesses that are going nowhere and hold back the one business (oil and gas drilling) that is actually trying to grow.  I am fine with stopping the use of the tax code to try to channel private investment in politician-preferred directions.  But changing the decision rule from "using the tax code to encourage all manufacturing investment" to "using the tax code to encourage investment only in the industries we are personally sympathetic to" is just making the interventionism worse.

This is really weak.  Not to mention flawed.  Unless I am missing something, a change from LIFO to FIFO or some other inventory valuation rules will create a one-time change in income (and thus taxes) when the change is made.  LIFO only creates sustained reductions in taxable income, and thus taxes, if your raw materials prices are consistently rising (it actually increases taxes vs. FIFO if input prices are falling).  Given that oil and gas prices are volatile, its hard to see how this does much except extract a one-time tax payment from oil companies at the changeover.

By the way, I am pretty sure I would be all for ending government spending on "ultra-deepwater and unconventional natural gas and other petroleum research," though ironically this is exactly the kind of basic research the Left loves the government to perform.

What Could Our Economy Possibly Need More Than Subsidies for Failing Farmer's Markets

Via the Thin Green Line

The number of farmers markets in the United States has skyrocketed from a measly 340 at the outset of the 1970s to more than 7,000 today, and, according to the USDA, sales of agricultural products directly from farmer to consumer brought in a whopping $1.2 billion in 2007.  [ed- this is a trivial portion of the US agricultural market, and hardly "whopping."]

But even though many markets have started accepting food stamps, critics still charge that they are only affordable for the haves, who are much more likely to have access to other fresh foods.

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists puts some holes in that theory. It says that modest public funding for a couple hundred otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets could generate to 13,500 jobs over a five-year period.

I really do not have much time, so we will have to leave aside how government-forced reallocation of capital from current productive uses to subsidizing small and failing farmers markets will be a net source of employment.

I have another point - as it turns out, we already have highly efficient farmers markets that source produce from the world's agricultural regions best suited to a particular crop and bring them in a very efficient and low-cost way to consumers, taking advantage of scale economies where they exist.  They are called "supermarkets."   If you want crops that don't take advantage of our best chemical and genetic technology, that are grown locally rather than in optimal soils and climates, and are retailed in inefficient, undersized and often unprofessionally managed part-time markets, they are going to cost more.

As is typical, this has nothing to do with helping the poor.  This is about government subsidy of a particular set of lifestyle choices of aging middle class hipsters.

 

A Large Part of Sports Team Profits (And Valuations) Come From Public Subsidies

I have argued many times that publicly-funded stadiums are a huge part of sports profits and team valuations.  For example, here in Glendale AZ, the town's stadium subsidies represent over a third of the value of the Cardinals and almost 200% of the value of the Coyotes.

As some of you may know, the NBA is heading into a protracted labor negotiation, with both parties acknowledging that the economics of the game have turned against owners.  Henry Abbot at ESPN argues that a large part of that economic change has been increasing taxpayer reluctance to subsidize sweetheart stadium deals for teams

Public money for stadiums has become scarce, and I have to believe that's part of the owners' pleas for financial relief from players. Huge moneymaking buildings for free or cheap have been no small part of what makes owning a team a no-brainer. Now teams in need of stadiums -- like the Kings and whatever team may one day relocate to Seattle -- face tough economics. Getting either deal done requires some kind of miracle. And in that context, if you ever fantasized about a world where taxpayers didn't contribute so much to buildings -- even if it meant players earned a little less -- well, your time is now.

To his latter point, I hope he is right.

Hey, I Can Like Ice Hockey But Still Hate Subsidies

Spend a few nights listening to the news on TV, and you will quickly discover the one of the bedrock logical fallacies of political discourse:

If it's good, the government should subsidize it.  If it's bad, the government should ban it.  If outcomes are in any way perceived by any group to be sub-optimal, then the government should regulate it.  Anyone who opposes these bans, subsidies, and regulations must therefore be a supporter of bad outcomes, hate poor people, want people to get sick and die, etc.

Just last night, I was watching the local news (something I almost never do) and saw a story of one of those kids' bouncy houses that blew out of someone's backyard into a road.  There was a girl inside who was scared but unhurt  (after all, she was surrounded on six sides by giant airbags).   Of course the conclusion of the story was a call for more government regulation of tie downs for private backyard bouncy houses.  And those of us who think it's absurd for the government to micro-regulate such things, particularly after a single freak accident when no one was hurt -- we just want to see children die, of course.

Which brings me to this little gem in a local blog, which reflects a feeling held by many area sports fans.  Remember that I have supported the Goldwater Institute in their opposition to the city of Glendale giving a rich guy $200 million to buy our NHL ice hockey team and keep it here.    My (and I presume Goldwater's) motivation has been opposition to a huge government subsidy that equates to nearly $1000 for every man, woman, and child in Glendale.  This subsidy appears illegal under the Arizona Constitution.  But that is not how political discourse works.  We are not defending the Constitution, we just hate hockey (emphasis added)

If you believe Canadian newspapers, tonight's game against the Detroit Red Wings will be the Phoenix Coyotes last game in the desert.

Canadians like hockey. Judging by attendance at Coyotes games, Phoenicians don't (at least not enough to drive to west side), which is why Canadians are so optimistic that their beloved Winnipeg Jets will be returning to our overly polite neighbors to the north.

The Coyotes ended the season with the second worst attendance in the NHL. That, coupled with the Goldwater Institute's crusade to drive the team out of the Valley, is not helping the city of Glendale's attempt to keep the team.

A few facts to remember:

  • As the article states, local residents have already voted with their feet, since the team has nearly the lowest attendance in the league despite going to the playoffs both last year and this year.  They have trouble selling out playoff games.
  • The team has lost money every year it has been here.  It lost something like $40 million this year
  • The team is worth $100 million here in Phoenix.  That is the going rate for warm-market teams.  The buyer is willing to pay $100 million of his own money for the team.   So why is a subsidy needed?  The NHL insists on selling the team for $200 million or more.  Though it piously claims to want to keep hockey in Arizona, it is selling the team for price than can only be paid by buyers who want to move the team.
  • The City of Glendale appears to have lied outright in selling this deal to the public.  In particular, it claimed the $100 million was not a giveaway, but a payment for the team's rights to charge for parking.  But many insiders say the City always retained this right, and it strains credulity that while losing money for seven years, the team would not have exercised this right if it really owned it.
  • Glendale has only itself to blame, confounding an already difficult marketing task (ice hockey in the desert) by putting the stadium on the far end of a sprawling city.   The location is roughly the equivalent in terms of distance and relationship to the metropolitan area of moving the Chicago Blackhawks or Bulls stadium to Gary, Indiana.  The stadium ended up in Glendale because neither Tempe, Scottsdale, nor Phoenix was willing to make a $200 million, 30-year taxpayer-funded bet on the profitability of ice hockey.

Local Paper Continues Its Relentless Campaign for Sports Team Subsidies

Several days ago, I wrote how our local paper, the Arizona Republic, was engaging in a coordinated campaign to get the city of Glendale to subsidize the private purchase of our professional hockey team with a $200 million bond issue.  The logic of this is mainly to save the previous $180 million bond issue the city unwisely issued several years ago to build an arena for this same hockey time as well as the sweetheart commercial real estate deals it has cut adjacent to the stadium.   All in all, the city proposes to spend a cumulative $380 million of public money to hold on to an asset valued by third parties at $ 116 million.  And through all of this spending, taxpayers will end up with not a dime of equity in this asset.

At the time, I thought the campaign had been relentless, going on day after day with both editorials and news articles making cases to subsidize the team, and hammering the Goldwater Institute for actually questioning the legality of transaction.  I mean God forbid anyone would actually interpret the Arizona Constitution "gift clause" that says governments in the state cannot give money to private businesses as potentially barring Glendale from giving money to a private investor so he can buy the hockey team.

But when I called the campaign relentless, little did I know it would continue day after day through the rest of the week.  Every day we get a new article that is basically an editorial in disguise, with the opposing position, if included, down around paragraph 25.   Today's is just a masterpiece of such yellow journalism, which includes no opposing viewpoint at all, and includes this classic gem that is almost a caricature of itself:

Rick Myers and his wife have worked as part-time ticket-takers since 2004, the year after Jobing.com Arena opened and they visited for the first time.

"This arena is not brick and mortar, ice and air-conditioning. This arena is a family," he said.

Craig Van Kessel, a disabled military veteran, agreed.

He said six months after getting a job with the team, when he had major surgery, his co-workers called, sent cards and offered help. The team also donates prizes each year for a Western Amputee Golf Association tournament that Kessel helps organize.

If the team leaves, he said, it affects "us little people."

John Minor, a guest services employee, said he counts friendships among the fans he meets at the arena, while Kyle Olson, director of arena events, said he's taught his toddler to howl like a coyote.

Can I barf now?  Seriously, if you were doing a caricature of bad anecdotal arguments for a typical concentrated-benefits-diffuse-costs government program, could you do any better than this?  We are talking about $200 freaking million dollars here.

Nowhere in any of its editorials or news articles acting as thinly veiled editorials does the AZ Republic reveal that it is an enormously interested party to the transaction.  The Sports Section sells papers, and the presence of an additional major league franchise adds a hard to measure but most definite contribution to the paper's bottom line.

Postscript: The key issue that spurred this is that the city's bond issue is facing higher than expected interest costs.  The city and the AZ Republic are trying to lay the blame on this on Goldwater for stirring up bad karma.  But in fact there are at least six factors for why bond interest rates might be higher:

  • The major bond ratings agencies recently put the city of Glendale on a credit watch list
  • Sales tax revenues that pay for the bonds are way down in AZ and Glendale
  • The city is investing $200 million in a $116 million dollar asset without getting any equity
  • The city has a history of failed bond issues, as evidenced by the previous $180 bond issue they are trying to bail out with this one
  • There is a general sense of wariness nationwide in government finances being overdrawn that may be spilling over into the bond market
  • A local think tank has raised legal questions about the deal — legal questions that turned out to be correct in a parallel case.

Incredibly, our paper has spend over a week harping on just one of these, which to my mind seems the most trivial.

Postscript #2: And by the way, this team is in bankruptcy.  Where is the plan for how that will be avoided in the future?  Won't we be in the same spot five years from now, just with twice as much bond debt?

Business Relocation Subsidies

I return to an old favorite topic of mine this week, government subsidies for business relocation, in my column at Forbes.com.  An excerpt:

To see this clearer, lets take the example of Major League Baseball (MLB).  We all know that cities and states have for years been massively subsidizing new baseball stadiums for billionaire team owners.  Let’s for a minute say this never happened – that somehow, the mayors of the 50 largest cities got together in 1960 and made a no-stadium-subsidy pledge.  Would baseball still exist?  Sure!  Teams like the Giants have proven that baseball can work financially in a private park, and baseball thrived for years with private parks.  But would baseball be in the same cities?  Well, without subsidies, baseball would likely be in the largest cities, like New York and LA and Chicago, which is exactly where they are now.  The odd city here or there might be different, e.g. Tampa Bay might never have gotten a team, but that might in retrospect have been a good thing.

The net effect in baseball is the same as it is in every other industry:  Relocation subsidies, when everyone is playing the game, do nothing to substantially affect the location of jobs and businesses, but rather just transfer taxpayer money to business owners and workers.

I Need Some Help on Alternative Energy Subsidies

Next week I am on a panel talking about alternative energy.  These guys have already told me they don't want to re-fight the global warming science battle at this venue, and my guess is that there will be a lot of pragmatist corporate types who won't really care about individual liberty or role-of-government issues  -- they will only care if there is money to be made, even if it is by rent-seeking.  My best bet, I think, will be to discuss why alternative energy is a bad investment.  My sense is that it is a bubble investment, like goofy Internet stocks in the 1990's or housing in the 2000's.  Already, I think we see the crash in the corn ethanol business.

My two assumptions are

  • I can't think of any industries that were initially heavily subsidized that eventually found their way to competing successfully and growing without subsidies.
  • With the exception of agriculture, the public's tolerance for growing subsidies to a single industry eventually wanes.

I would love for commenters or emailers to send me contra-examples if they have them to either of these assumptions.  In particular, can you think of an industry that could not have grown initially without subsidies eventually prospering without subsidies.

To the second point, I looked at the numbers two ways.

  1. In Germany, which is often held up as the model, feed-in tariff subsidies are between $0.06 (wind) and $0.50 (solar) a Kwh.  If the US reached a goal of 20% of its production in wind and solar (total production today is about 4000 billion KWh) then the subsidy would be between $50 billion and $400 billion a year.  It is hard to imagine these remaining popular for any period of time.  (lots of German numbers here and in the linked PDF)
  2. Venture capitalists and investors are expecting the growth stocks they invest in to grow at, say, 30% a year.   Let's assume alternative energy companies grow at 30% a year and the number of companies, attracted to the growth and subsidies, doubles every two years.  In this scenario, assuming unrealistically that the supply curve for alternative energy is flat rather than upward sloping, the amount of subsidies to support this growth would have to nearly double every year.  They would increase 21-fold in five years and 440-fold in 10 years.   In fact, given the shape of real supply curves, new more expensive capacity at the margin is replacing cheaper and cheaper alternatives, resulting in the need to grow subsidies even faster to keep up.   Never has happened, never will.  Once the industry outgrows the government's willingness to grow subsidies, the whole thing crashes.

(PS - the subsidy could also be in the form of taxes that increase the cost of alternatives, or production and/or import restrictions on the alternatives).

Any help along these lines in the comments is appreciated.

Update: This seems relevant:

First Solar shares skidded 8% Friday to close at $116 after the company issued a murky business outlook beyond June. Until then, however, "orders look very strong," First Solar CEO Robert Gillette said in a post-earnings conference call.

This commentary, along with price pressure and expected subsidy cuts solar panel makers get from the German government is making investors a bit more wary of First Solar, whose shares have been on a bumpy ride the past 18 months....

First Solar, helped by government tax credits extended to businesses for using solar power, has rewarded its investors since going public in November 2006 at $20 a share. The stock peaked at $317 in May 2008. But the shares have been skittish ever since.

Germany, the world's biggest solar market, is weighing a 15% cut on so-called solar feed-in-tariffs. This could make solar installations less attractive.

First Solar projects 60% of its 2010 sales from German-related contracts, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Christine Hersey.

Remember from above, the German feed-in tariff for solar is around $0.58 per KwH, or fully $0.50 above the price paid for the fossil fuel base load.  At this subsidy level, the US would be paying $400 billion a year in subsidies and/or higher prices.

First Solar has grown at over 150% per year for the last 3 years so the 30% assumption above is conservative, as is the assumption about the number of competitors doubling every two years.

Another interesting note - First Solar makes a pre-tax margin around 33% of sales, which is over 6x larger than health insurance companies make (and are excoriated for).  Is it any wonder Germany no longer wants to keep subsidizing First Solar's bottom line to levels far above most equipment manufacturing companies.

Hot Money

Apparently our state government has been in another subsidy bidding war over a plant relocation, and fortunately it lost.  Why the state government pulls together Defcon 5 activity levels to bring 80 jobs to a town of 4 million is just beyond me.  But beyond my usual problems with subsidizing business relocation, which haven't changed from this post way back when I talked about relocation subsidies in the context of the prisoner's dilemma, I have three issues specific to our state's efforts to attract solar manufacturers:

  1. I am constantly amazed at the strategic planning that says Arizona residents should pay more taxes to promote a solar manufacturing industry because, uh, we have a lot of sun.  That's roughly as logical as saying an FM radio maker should manufacture in NY City because they have a lot of radio stations.  I suppose you could argue it would reduce shipping costs to solar using areas, but I can't believe that shipping costs dominate since most of the panels we buy in this country originated in Japan or Germany.
  2. Companies and industries that seek subsidies are like hot money in the investment world.  Even if you attract it today, they will jump next week to another location that offers them more.  We see it in this case, as AZ bought Kyocera's presence at one facility but can't afford the price to get them to build this new facility.
  3. The state's approach defies all business strategy, and is making a typical novice investment approach.  Specifically, they are chasing the hot industry.  Everyone is bidding for solar plants, so the price goes way up.  This is why we have bubbles in housing and Internet, because people all pile into the same investment like lemmings.  If I were to run a government business relocation strategy (which I most certainly would never do) I would be focusing on boring stuff no one subsidizes.  We offered nearly 100% property tax abatement plus investment tax credits and can't get a solar plant.  Instead we should be up in business hostile states like CA and NY getting rubber stamp makers and garage door manufacturers.  Surely we could get 70 jobs a lot cheaper.

More Fallout from Biofuel Subsidies

For a variety of reasons that have a lot more to do with subsidizing preferred business interests than energy or environmental policy, Congress has fallen in love with biofuel subsidies and mandates.  We've talked quite a bit on this site about ethanol.  Here is another example, via Mark Perry:

It sounded like a good idea: Provide a little government money to convert wood shavings and plant waste into renewable energy.

But as laudable as that goal sounds, it could end up causing more economic damage than good -- driving up the price of raw timber, undermining an industry that has long used sawdust and wood shavings to make affordable cabinetry, and highlighting the many challenges involved in decreasing the nation's dependence on oil by using organic materials to create biofuels.

In a matter of months, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program -- a small provision tucked into the 2008 farm bill -- has mushroomed into a half-a-billion dollar subsidy that is funneling taxpayer dollars to sawmills and lumber wholesalers, encouraging them to sell their waste to be converted into high-tech biofuels. In doing so, it is shutting off the supply of cheap timber byproducts to the nation's composite wood manufacturers, who make panels for home entertainment centers and kitchen cabinets.

The federal government can provide up to $45 a ton in matching payments to businesses that collect, harvest, store and transport biomass waste to an authorized energy facility. That means sawdust or wood shavings may be twice as valuable if a lumber mill sells them to a biomass energy company instead of to a traditional buyer.

This is bad news for the composite panel industry, which turns these materials into particleboard and medium-density fiberboard, and outranks the U.S. biomass industry in terms of employees and economic impact, with 21,000 employees and annual sales of $7.9 billion, according to 2006 U.S. Census data.

The article poses this as a dueling jobs situation, but the result not only leaves us worse off economically, it leaves us worse off environmentally.   And the explanation is all Hayek and the limits on information possessed by a few individuals in Congress vs. 300 million market actors.  It is pretty clear to me that, to whatever extent Congress even thought at all about this legislation, they must have assumed that wood shavings were "waste."  What happened, most likely, is some entrepreneur and his VC backers came to Congress saying that all this sawdust is just wasted and if you give us a fat subsidy, we can build a valuable business burning it for power.

But in fact, businesses (no matter how much environmentalists believe otherwise) abhor waste.    When a tenth of a percent on margins is important, a lot of people have financial incentives to either reduce the waste or do something productive with it.  Which is why there is a whole industry using sawdust and chips already to make various building products.  And I won't go into the math, but trust me that this kind of use for waste is far more efficient, both economically and environmentally, for the waste than just burning it.

Subsidies Beget Subsidies

For years in Arizona we have been told by the state government that we need to subsidize science.  I have never really figured out why my life would be better if scientists lived in Arizona instead of California, but apparently when governors get together and compare their states' penis lengths, this is one of the key topics that come up.  Why we need to subsidize, for example, bio-science in Arizona to keep up with California but folks in Kansas don't need to subsidize, say, awesome golf resorts to keep up with Arizona has always escaped me.  I have always felt that if we just keep taxes low and wait long enough, California is going to blow up and we will collect a lot of the best and brightest with no extra effort.

Well, I am starting to understand why we needed to subsidize bio-science with our Arizona taxes.  We apparently need to do so to ... attract large grants for Federal tax money.  So by subsidizing this sector locally, we built it up enough to attract Federal subsidies.  Great.  Actually we probably did not build up the sector per se, we just built a quality private bureaucracy that had the skills and incentives to write lots of successful grant applications.  Apparently there is still work left to do, though, as other states have invested in even larger grant-magnets:

States with strong science bases such as California, Massachusetts and New York, each landed more than 1,000 grants.

Twenty states secured fewer grants than Arizona's haul of 101 awards.

Arizona scientists will study things such as predicting asthma in babies, prostate cancer and the behavioral responses of kissing bugs, which are blood-sucking insects linked to a blood-borne disease that afflicts 11 million to 13 million people in Mexico and Latin America.

Arizona scientists say the batch of stimulus dollars through the NIH is a welcome change from years of stagnant federal funding for scientific research.

"There was no increase in federal funding for cancer research for five years - that was devastating," said Dr. David Alberts, director of the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson. "Now, I'm encouraged."

Wow - thus we see why government spending grows so much faster than inflation.  Flat spending = devastating.

If I were in academia, the study I would like to do is to try to assess the total value destroyed by state and local governments merely in trying to move businesses and facilities from one part of the country to another.

Update on Rail Subsidies

As an update on my rail subsidy post, I saw a relevant post from the Thin Green Line yesterday.  At least, I suppose, transit supporters are honest:

When I talked to Dave Snyder earlier this month about a fix for mass transit in the Bay Area, he told me, "Somehow or another we've got to get more money from driving."

However, I thought this was a hilarious lack of perspective:

...one side effect of the green revolution has been a growing awareness of how much roads cost. I imagine you'd be surprised to learn that building a road"”not maintaining it, just building it"”costs more than $16 per square foot.

I have no doubt that this person, who is a strong light rail supporter, honestly thinks this is a lot of money.  But I did the math in my comments on his post:

$16 per square foot for highway should be considered a bargain. This means that a twenty foot wide two-lane highway is $320 per linear foot.

The Phoenix light rail system cost $1.4 billion (thats building it, not maintaining it) for 20 miles, which at 34,000 boardings per week day is carrying somewhat less traffic than the capacity of a two lane highway. However, it cost $13,258 per linear foot, or 41 times your highway numbers. Which is why highway users easily pay the full cost of their transportation infrastructure through their gas taxes, but transit users don't even come close.

In Phoenix, light rail fare revenues cover only 7% of its operating and capital costs. Which always has me scratching my head when people say light rail is somehow more "sustainable." If running trains requires, as you suggest, draining resources from millions of people just to move thousands, how is it sustainable?

We Make Money the Old Fashioned Way -- Through Massive Public Subsidies

During and after the Obama proposal for lots more government spending on long-distance rail lines no one will ride, there was a lot of discussion about how European railroads make money with high speed lines.  This sounded like BS to me, from my experience.  Years ago I consulted briefly with the SNCF, the state railroad of France.  Just as one example, we found they had something like 100,000 freight cars and 125,000 freight car mechanics.  I tongue-in-cheek suggested they could assign each guy his own car to ride with full time and fix if necessary and still cut staff by 20%.

Anyway, it turns out the profitability claim is BS.  The Antiplanner links to this study by the Amtrak inspector general.   Here is the key chart, with the green the "reported" profits.  But it turns out they book subsidies as revenue.  The subsidies (including indirect subsidies like taking railroad pensions into the national system and off the railroad's books) are in red.

railroad-losses

Postscript: I have always been amazed that greens get all misty-eyed at European rail.  Sure, its cool to ride a fast train, but the cost of having an extensive passenger rail system is that most of Europe's freight pounds along highways, rather than via rail.  In the US, the mix is opposite, with few passengers on trains but much more of our freight moving by rail.  I would have thought that preferentially moving freight over rail rather than passengers was a much greener approach.

Interest Grows for Receiving Government Handouts

The AZ Republic has an article today entitled, "Interest grows for solar plant at city landfill."  It is telling who is interested:

It's a sign of the growing interest in Arizona's renewable-energy market, as solar manufacturers, civil engineers, investors and attorneys showed enthusiasm for the $1 billion project

I am quite sure that a number of solar engineering firms and parts manufacturers are interested feeding off a billion dollar project.  Now, the article tries to anticipate my concern about this being a government pork-fest by saying the project "would be financed and built by the private sector."  This is an odd statement given this note a couple of paragraphs later:

That would help the solar company meet a strict deadline to apply for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds....

the economic-stimulus package provides grants of up to 30 percent of construction costs if companies can break ground by December 2010, said Brian Rasmussen of California-based BrightSource Energy Inc., a potential bidder.

So the billion dollars is privately financed, except for the real estate provided by the city and the $300 million in federal government funds and a gauranteed above-market subsidized purchase price for the power from the public utility plus any number of other government subsidies and incentives to be named later (such as government municipal bond financing).

Absolutely Inevitable

If you move solar panels out of the Arizona desert, they are going to produce less electricity.  You almost don't have to tell me where they are going -- if they are currently close to the optimal spot for maximum solar energy production, then moving them is bound to reduce their output.

Seems obvious, huh?  So why is it so difficult to understand that when the government moves capital and other resources away from the industries where the forces of market optimization have put it, output is going to go down.

Subsidizing renewable energy in the U.S. may destroy two jobs for every one created if Spain's experience with windmills and solar farms is any guide.

For every new position that depends on energy price supports, at least 2.2 jobs in other industries will disappear, according to a study from King Juan Carlos University in Madrid.

U.S. President Barack Obama's 2010 budget proposal contains about $20 billion in tax incentives for clean-energy programs. In Spain, where wind turbines provided 11 percent of power demand last year, generators earn rates as much as 11 times more for renewable energy compared with burning fossil fuels.

The premiums paid for solar, biomass, wave and wind power - - which are charged to consumers in their bills -- translated into a $774,000 cost for each Spanish "green job" created since 2000, said Gabriel Calzada, an economics professor at the university and author of the report.

"The loss of jobs could be greater if you account for the amount of lost industry that moves out of the country due to higher energy prices," he said in an interview.

We all know from reading the media that the Obama administration is 1) full of brilliant people way smarter than the rest of us and 2) driven by science.  So this insightful exchange between a reporter and White House spokesman Robert GIbbs vis a vis this Spanish study should come as no surprise:

Q: Back on the President's speech today, a Spanish professor, Gabriel [Calzada] Álvarez, says after conducting a study, that in his country, creating green jobs has actually cost more jobs than it has led to: 2.2 jobs lost, he says, for every job created. And he has issued a report that specifically warns the President not to try and follow Spain's example.

MR. GIBBS: It seems weird that we're importing wind turbine parts from Spain in order to build "” to meet renewable energy demand here if that were even remotely the case.

Q Is that a suggestion that his study is simply flat wrong?

MR. GIBBS: I haven't read the study, but I think, yes.

Q Well, then. (Laughter.)

In two sentences, Mr. Gibbs demonstrates that 1) He is an idiot and 2) He has no respect for science.  The correct, intelligent response would be "I can't comment, I have not read the study yet."  Mr. Gibbs does deserve credit for being an apparent master of the non-sequitur.  I have been trying to think of an eqivilent formulation.  The best I can come up with is to suppose someone said that "publicly funded sports stadiums generate no new economic activity and are just a taxpayer subsidy of sports owners, players, and ticket holders" and getting the response that  "how can this be when people still go to the games?"

I was afraid that all this braininess in the White House was going to eliminate the humor from Administration pronouncements but I see that won't be the case.

Transit as the Anti-Stimulus

The (flawed) theory of government stimulus plans is that in certain economic under-capacity situations, government spending can have a multiplier effect.

The Anti-planner shows that, as far as government spending on mass-transit is concerned, $9,150 of taxpayer subsides per rider generate about $6,100 in average savings per rider.  Every dollar of public transit spending destroys about 30 cents of value, which I guess makes it the anti-stimulus.

Update:  Yeah, I know, transit supposedly eliminates all those externalities.  But most rail transit plans typically reduce congestion by fractions of a percent, even by their builder's estimates, while energy savings is wildly over-estimated.

A Small Setback for the Corporate State

Phoenix's agreement to give a $100 million handout to a shopping mall development in north Phoenix was struck down as illegal.

A major economic-development agreement between Phoenix and the CityNorth development has been ruled unconstitutional, meaning the project may not grow into the once-envisioned second downtown on the city's north side.

The Arizona Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the $97.4 million agreement violates the gift clause of the Arizona Constitution, which prohibits governments from granting money or credit to private entities in most cases.

In 2007, the city agreed to give the developer half the sales-tax revenue from the site. The developer, among other provisions, agreed to denser construction and to provide free parking and special spaces for park-and-ride use.

Excellent news.  This handout was engineered in a fairly smart bit of rent-seeking on the developer's part.  There are two competing shopping mall development sites about a mile apart in a wealthy area along highway 101.  The two sites are close, but on different sides of the Scottsdale-Phoenix border, so the developers managed to get Phoenix to pony up tons of taxpayer swag out of fear that stores like Nordstrom would move to the Scottsdale development (more here).  The parking subsidy came in at around $30,000 per parking space, and the only public benefit was supposedly that other locals could use the lot, though there are no other structures not within this particular development in walking distance of the proposed lot.  Here is the enormous downside that Phoenix now faces for not being able to hand $100 million to the developers:

Representatives of the Thomas J. Klutznick Co. declined interviews but issued a prepared statement saying that, without the agreement, they will be forced to cut the density of the project.

Less density would mean fewer shops, restaurants, hotels and offices and fewer jobs, the statement said.

The company said a "less capital-intensive design" would include surface parking lots covering more than half the development. It also warned that the project will face delays.

Uh, okay.  I think I will survive.   Their problem is they wanted the taxpayer-funded garage so that they could convert surface lots in their plan to more buildings they could rent or sell.  Boohoo.  Either it makes economic sense, and they can pony up their own money, or not.  Speaking personally, fighting Christmas shopping traffic, I am just fine with lower density shopping.

Where the Subsidies Go

A week or so ago, I discussed federal energy subsidies and hypothesized, without a lot of facts, that a lot of them go to failing alternative energy projects rather than to oil company shareholders.  I asked readers if they had any more information, and the discussion is here.

But ask and ye shall receive, and the WSJ has an article today on federal energy subsidies and where they go.  The answer is:  in bulk dollars, a lot of them go nuclear, hydro, and traditional fossil fuel production.  However, it is interesting to look at them on an output basis:

For electricity generation, the EIA concludes that
solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour,
wind $23.37 and "clean coal" $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives
44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and
nuclear power $1.59.

The wind and solar lobbies are currently moaning that
they don't get their fair share of the subsidy pie. They also argue
that subsidies per unit of energy are always higher at an early stage
of development, before innovation makes large-scale production
possible. But wind and solar have been on the subsidy take for years,
and they still account for less than 1% of total net electricity
generation. Would it make any difference if the federal subsidy for
wind were $50 per megawatt hour, or even $100? Almost certainly not
without a technological breakthrough.

By contrast, nuclear power provides 20% of U.S. base
electricity production, yet it is subsidized about 15 times less than
wind. We prefer an energy policy that lets markets determine which
energy source dominates. But if you believe in subsidies, then nuclear
power gets a lot more power for the buck than other "alternatives."

The same study also looked at federal subsidies for
non-electrical energy production, such as for fuel. It found that
ethanol and biofuels receive $5.72 per British thermal unit of energy
produced. That compares to $2.82 for solar and $1.35 for refined coal,
but only three cents per BTU for natural gas and other petroleum
liquids.

I will repeat what I said in my earlier post, just so no one is confused about my position:

I personally don't care where [the subsidies go]. I am all for eliminating all
of this subsidy mess, equally, whether it's for oil exploration or
energy-from-donkey-poop or for CEO salary enhancement.

Question about Energy "Subsidies"

Kevin Drum and Alex Knapp write that there appears to be $20-$50 billion in federal energy subsidies each year going to the oil industry, and that this should be a target for elimination before any windfall profits tax.  I wrote in the comments:

I agree 100%.  Let's cut all the subsidies.

However, before you get too excited, my guess is that most of the
money marked as "oil company subsidies" really in fact goes to non-oil
projects like alternative energy. In the same way that a huge portion
of federal "highway" funds don't go to highways but to silly
politically correct failing transit projects, my guess is that,
similarly, "oil industry" subsidies go for a lot of silly alternative
energy projects.

I personally don't care where it goes. I am all for eliminating all
of this subsidy mess, equally, whether it's for oil exploration or
energy-from-donkey-poop or for CEO salary enhancement. But recognize
before you make this the liberal rallying cry, much of this subsidy
money may well be going to liberal pet projects.

Anyone have any better idea where this money goes that they are referring to?

Now I'm Really Mad at Ethanol Subsidies

OK, I was mad at the waste of tax dollars for ethanol programs that do nothing for the environment or to reduce net fossil fuel consumption.  I was mad that a technology that in no way reduces CO2 production but does introduce radical new land-use-related environmental problems could be sold as an environmental panacea, rather than the corporate welfare it truly is.  I was mad we have decided it is more important to subsidize corn farmers than to continue to provide the world's poor with cheap food.  And I was flabbergasted that Congress could call for production of more corn-based ethanol than is physically possible with our entire corn crop.

But I really am mad now that ethanol subsidies are making craft beers rarer and more expensive to make:

A global shortage of hops, combined with a run-up in barley prices, is
sending a chill through Arizona's craft-beer industry.

The hops shortage threatens to boost prices, cut into profits and close
down brewpubs. It could change the taste and consistency of treasured
local ales.

In Bisbee, "hop heads" already are weaning themselves from Electric
Dave's India Pale Ale. Dave Harvan closed his 7-year-old Electric
Brewing Co. in November, citing the scarcity and high cost of
ingredients.

So why aren't as many farmers growing hops and barley?  Because the government is paying them ridiculous jack to grow corn so we can burn food into our cars:

Papazian attributed the barley prices to ethanol subsidies that have
raised the price of corn, the main ingredient in the alternative fuel.
As a result, farmers have switched to barley for livestock feed, which
has pushed up prices.

The hops situation is more complex. Years of overproduction and low
prices led farmers to replace hops fields with more profitable crops.
Add to that corn subsidies that have caused farmers to replace hops
fields with corn, a drought in Australia that affected yields and heavy
rains in Europe that ruined much of this year's crop.

We Have Got To Stop BioFuel Subsidies Right Now

I have no problem if someone wants to compete out there in the free market producing fuel from corn or switchgrass or whatever.  But we have got to stop the subsidies right now, before it is too late.  Biofuels do absolutely nothing, zero, zippo to change CO2 production, and some studies show they make CO2 output worse when you consider the whole production cycle.  This is not to mention the effect biofuels will have in putting more wild and forest land under the till. 

I can't see any conceivable benefit to the economy from subsidizing biofuels, except some hazy notion of energy independence which has limited economic value and which will never be achieved with biofuels  (we will have jacked up the price of corn so high we can't feed cattle long before biofuels make even a minor dent in oil imports).  My only guess as to true motivation is that people want to spite Exxon and Shell, but if you don't like those companies, you really aren't going to like Archer Daniels Midland. 

Biofuels, given current technology, are a pure product of politics.  They are a massive subsidy of Midwestern farmers that the recipients can claim is not really a subsidy.  If the first presidential primary were in Nevada rather than Iowa, you would never hear a word from politicians about ethanol.

But here is the reason we need to end the subsidies right now.  [emphasis added]

A $400-million integrated biodiesel and ethanol refinery the first
complex of its kind in North America will be built in central Alberta.

Led
by Dominion Energy Services, LLC a Florida-based group with pioneering
ties to Calgary's natural gas marketing sector investors that include
$45-billion US private equity fund The Carlyle Group LLC and affiliate
Riverstone Renewable Energy Infrastructure Fund I, LP said Monday they
have finalized plans for the facility....

Alberta Agriculture Minister Doug Horner noted the "world-class"
Dominion plant follows the provincial government's recent, $239-million
over five years initiative to boost biofuels production. The province
will provide a 14-cent per litre production credit to the facility
.  [for those rusty on the metric system, that is 56-cents per gallon or $23.53 per barrel]

Companies are currently building massive subsidy-magnets biofuel plants.  Once these investments are in place, there is going to be a huge entrenched base of investors and workers who are going to wield every bit of political power they can to retain subsidies forever to protect their jobs and their investment.  Biofuel subsidies will be as intractable as peanut and sugar subsidies and protections.

Update:  Radley Balko mentions another great example.  For various post-prohibition reasons that may or may not have made sense at the time, state laws prohibit retailers from buying alcoholic beverages straight from the manufacturer - e.g. Costco cannot buy direct from Anheiser-Busch.  Wholesalers who emerged to fill the legally required middleman role became rich.  Since then, even thought this 3-layered distribution requirement makes zero sense, it has become impossible to change it because the wealthy distributors who owe their fortunes to the requirement block every move to deregulate.

New Energy Subsidies

As I wrote before, the new Democratic Congress try to end certain subsidies received by major oil companies.  All fine and good, at least as long as it is really a subsidy and not just an contract obligation they would like to get out of.

One might be led to believe that the Democrats were finally going to address the corporate welfare issues they have been promising to deal with for years.  Unfortunately, it appears that they are really only looking for an excuse for some populist demagoguing against Exxon.  Subsidies still appear to be A-OK:

The Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren are all in favor of eliminating energy subsidies.  By that measure, they find
the House Democrats' 100-hour energy legislation -- H.R. 6, the
Creating Long-Term Energy Alternatives for the Nation Act (aka the
"CLEAN Energy Act") -- to be quite a disappointment.

Energy subsidies, of course, have been a historical disaster.  If you have ever traveled around California, a common site you will see is 1) Windmills that are not working and 2) Rooftop solar fixtures that appear badly broken.  That is because these facilities were installed cheaply as subsidy magnets, rather than actual, you know, investments that made any sense.   Here in Arizona, every third rich persons SUV has this Arizona environmentally-friendly license plate that says the truck is dual-fuel.  When I moved here, I though that was kind of cool.  I know several countries that have good CNG (compressed natural gas) economies in their transportation sector.  It turns out, though, that none of these vehicles actually fill up with anything but gasoline.  Several years ago Arizona had a subsidy for buying dual-fuel trucks that exceeded the cost of conversion, so that everyone did the conversion as a money-maker. 

And these are far from being the worst.  How many billions have been sunk into R&D rat-holes that have produced nothing except some professor's tenure?  Remember that alternative energy and energy conservation technologies are among the hottest sectors in venture capital nowadays.  The VC's I know can't get enough of these projects, and are project rather than money limited.  This means that every subsidy and grant for energy can only go to one of two places:

  • Projects that are already going to be privately funded, so that all they do is displace private funding, which makes them a total waste of taxpayer money
  • Projects that were rejected for private funding as uneconomic or unpromising, such that the spending is a waste unless you assume Congressmen and government bureaucrats are sharper than VC's in picking investments.

My observation is the two political parties differ on subsidies only in terms of style.  The Democrats appear to have no problems with subsidies as long as they go to sympathetic and fashionable companies (e.g. Google via net neutrality) rather than companies they have deemed to be unfashionable (e.g. Exxon).

Get Wal-Mart Out of the Public Trough

I have defended Wal-Mart on a number of occasions given its new whipping-boy-of-the-left status.  However, if it wants to get my further support, it is going to have to take it's nose out of the public trough.

It's hard to find reliable numbers on the total value to Wal-Mart of such subsidies. The leading report is Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth
by Philip Mattera and Anna Purinton was published by a left-leaning
advocacy group and funded in part by one of the very unions trying to
unionize Wal-Mart's work force, which will suggest to some a need for
caution. Yet, even if one applies a substantial discount to Mattera and
Purinton's results, Wal-Mart is still doing quite well at the public
trough:

  • In a sample of subsidy deals for individual stores, they found
    subsidies ranging from "$1 million to about $12 million, with an
    average of about $2.8 million."
  • In a survey of Wal-Mart regional distribution centers, they found
    that "84 of the 91 centers have received subsidies totaling at least
    $624 million. The deals, most of which involved a variety of subsidies,
    ranged as high as $48 million, with an average of about $7.4 million."

In a very real sense, Wal-Mart thus is in part a creature of big
government. From this perspective, Wal-Mart's recent hiring of
long-time Democratic operative Leslie Datch and significant increase in
contributions to Democratic politicians comes as no surprise. (Of
course, as Timothy Carney has argued,
it may also be that Wal-Mart is now using big government not just to
boost its own growth but as a tool to squash competition.)

Is Wal-Mart becoming the Archer-Daniels-Midland of retail?  In fact, the article does not even mention the egregious practice of getting local governments to use eminent domain to clear them a building location.  A while back I argued that Wal-Mart was using regulation as a club to pound on their competitors:

Apparently, though I can't dig up a link right this second, Wal-mart
is putting its support behind a higher minimum wage.  One way to look
at this is a fairly cynical ploy to get the left off its back.  After
all, if Wal-mart's starting salary is $6.50 an hour (for example) it
costs them nothing to ask for a minimum wage of $6.50.

A different, and perhaps more realistic way to look at this Wal-mart
initiative is as a bald move to get government to sit on their
competition.  After all, as its wage rates creep up, as is typical in
more established companies, they are vulnerable to competitors gaining
advantage over them by paying lower wages.  If Wal-mart gets the
government to set the minimum wage closer to the wage rates it pays, it
eliminates the possibility of this competitor strategy.  Besides, a
higher minimum wage would surely put more low-skilled people out of
work, increasing the pool of people Wal-mart can hire  (and please do
not bring up the NJ convenience store study that supposedly shows that
higher minimum wage increase employment - no one in their right mind
really believes that demand for labor goes up when the costs go up).  I
am not sure what the net effect on Wal-mart's customers would be --
some would have more money, from higher wage, and some would have less,
from fewer hours or due to being laid off.

I have defended Wal-mart in the past,
but I am going to stop if they become the new auto or steel industry
and use the government to protect their market position.  Already they
are losing my sympathy with their whoring for local relocation subsidies and eminent domain land grabs.

If Wal-Mart wants to seek public funding for its business and impose regulation on its competitors, and thereby make itself a semi-governmental entity, then I am no longer going to have any sympathy for them when governments want to single them out for special regulation, no matter how bone-headed the regulation may be.