Posts tagged ‘Subsidies’

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.

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

  • 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.

More Arizona Cotton Subsidies

A while back, I wrote the Porkbusters post on Arizona farm subsidies, which are mainly cotton subsidies.  Cotton gets subsidized both with direct farm subsidies as well as price-subsidized water (this is a desert, after all, and unlike Egypt we don't have the Nile running through it).

Porkopolis is on the case with a further potential subsidy, as the US Government is apparently transferring a valuable piece of Phoenix commercial real estate to Arizona cotton growers:

A review of the final bill passed by both the House and the Senate shows that Senators DeWine and Voinovich, along with 97 other Senators,
voted for a provision that transfers a federal facility and surrounding
land to the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and Supima:

783. As soon as practicable after the Agricultural Research Service
Operations at the Western Cotton Research Laboratory located at 4135
East Broadway Road in Phoenix, Arizona, have ceased, the Secretary of
Agriculture shall convey, without consideration, to the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and Supima all right, title, and interest of the United States in and to the real property at that location, including improvements.

They've got a very deep investigative report. 

Fight Arizona Pork

President Bush's call for Katrina spending to be offset by budget cuts has spurred a blogosphere effort to identify local pork urge Congress to cut the pork.  I am 98% behind this effort (the missing 2% being that the effort is spurred by a desire to spend the money somewhere else, rather than sending it back to taxpayers where it belongs).  Glenn Reynolds post that got the ball rolling is here.  His followup posts are here and here.  I will note the irony that I recently compared Don Young (of Alaska bridge to nowhere fame) to Huey Long (of multiple bridges to nowhere fame), given that we are looking to cut Don Young's pork to help Huey Long's old stomping ground.


Edward at Zonitics has already identified one of the most visible chunks of AZ pork, that is our earmarks in the recent highway bill.  These include nearly five million for a couple of pedestrian bridges, plus hundreds of millions for a rail system to run empty trains to compete with our empty buses.  Why does the rest of the country need to pay for Phoenix's growth?  Heck, we just took the money the feds saved us on this junk and spent it subsidizing a stadium for the Cardinals, for god's sakes.   I will note that of the mere 8 people who voted against the highway bill, 2 were from Arizona, including my 3rd district Congressman John Shadegg and libertarian Jeff Flake.  Flake, consistent with his libertarian principles (or in retribution for them?) represents the only district in the country without an earmark in the highway bill.

So, to push the ball forward, I will add another bit of Arizona pork.  I wanted to include some items form the energy bill, but I can't find a state by state impact.  But I can find, thanks to the environmental working group, a nice summary of farm subsidies to Arizona.  Here is a summary for the most recent year they have data:

Rank Program
(click for top recipients, payment concentration and regional rankings)
Number of Recipients
Subsidy Total
1 Cotton Subsidies   1,339   $103,125,972
2 Subtotal, Disaster Payments   1,966   $11,915,428
3 Env. Quality Incentive Program   254   $5,619,853
4 Wheat Subsidies   1,018   $5,192,003
5 Dairy Program Subsidies   128   $4,925,610
6 Livestock Subsidies   1,460   $3,050,869
7 Corn Subsidies   514   $1,500,291
8 Barley Subsidies   729   $660,236
9 Apple Subsidies   17   $271,523
10 Wool Subsidies   1,219   $259,616

And here is the same data but cut by recipient, with just the top 20 included:

1 Colorado River Indian Tribes Farm Parker, AZ 85344 $2,102,881
2 Ak-chin Farms Maricopa, AZ 85239 $1,499,278
3 Gila River Farms Sacaton, AZ 85247 $1,406,582
4 Catron Cotton Co Tonopah, AZ 85354 $1,156,539
5 Tohono O'odham Farming Authority Eloy, AZ 85231 $1,078,480
6 Bia Sacaton, AZ 85247 $1,064,062
7 Eagle Tail Farming Partnership Buckeye, AZ 85326 $1,045,584
8 Tempe Farming Company Maricopa, AZ 85239 $947,811
9 Fort Mojave Tribe Mohave Valley, AZ 86446 $938,843
10 P R P Farms Buckeye, AZ 85326 $899,098
11 G P A Management Group Tempe, AZ 85284 $893,672
12 Gin Ranch 94 Buckeye, AZ 85326 $889,764
13 H Four Farms III Buckeye, AZ 85326 $863,086
14 Brooks Farms Goodyear, AZ 85338 $861,762
15 Green Acres Farms Buckeye, AZ 85326 $812,583
16 Martori Family Gen Ptn Scottsdale, AZ 85260 $788,150
17 Falfa Farms 95 Queen Creek, AZ 85242 $779,426
18 Associated Farming 92 Laveen, AZ 85339 $749,947
19 A Tumbling T Ranches 95 Goodyear, AZ 85338 $709,455
20 Rogers Brothers Farms Ptnshp Laveen, AZ 85339 $706,305

I don't know all these folks, but I can say that all of the first three have extremely profitable casinos they operate.

I am writing my letter now to the my Congressman and Senators, and will post a copy as an update when I am done.  The ubiquitous NZ Bear has a data base he is building of pork identified.

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Local Subsidies for Business Relocation

It is not that often I get the opportunity to find something about taxes and markets in Kevin Drum's column that I agree with, but his guest blogger Paul Glastris has a good series of posts on state and local tax breaks, and even direct subsidies, for relocating businesses (first post here).  Glastris argues for the elimination of these tax breaks and subsidies, and I agree 100% with this conclusion, though not necesarily his legal justification for doing so (more on that later).

I have written a number of times about my frustration with a particular type of these subsidies - the public financing of stadiums for private sports teams (here, here, and here).  This stadium construction is usually undertaken as a result of corporate blackmail, where sports teams threaten to move unless they get a new stadium.  The dynamics of other tax breaks and subsidies to relocating businesses referred to by Glastris are usually similar, though these companies don't tend to have the monopsony power of sports franchises so they often get a smaller payout.

Why do local governments pay out huge incentive to corporations who after all have to put their business somewhere?  The answer is that they are caught in a classic prisoner's dilemma.  Basically, in this "game", each participant has individual incentives that seem to point to a certain set of actions.  Unfortunately, when players follow these incentives, the result is sub-optimized for everyone.

In this example, local authorities see a business that may move to town, and decide it is better to have it in their city with tax concessions than to have it in another city.  Since cities lose some of these battles and win some, and since cities that lose one battle tend to pay more to win the next one, the end result is that businesses end up being distributed fairly evenly, but cities have all given up huge tax concessions.  Clearly the ideal state, at least for city governments, is to not give any tax concessions at all.  In this case, businesses would likely still end up being distributed fairly evenly, but cities would not have given out tax breaks.

The only way to get to this end state is 1) have a philosophic change, with local citizens rejecting the use of government to affect relocation decisions (ie become libertarians!); 2) collude - have the council of mayors get together and sign a no new subsidy pledge or 3) have some higher authority police the local governments (that is the option explored in the Glastris article - can the US Government or courts constitutionally stop this). 

The Washington Monthly, in opposing these tax breaks, has a problem, though.  As good technocrats and liberal interventionists, they wholeheartedly support the government's right to regulate the hell out of business and commercial decision-making.  They can't, therefore, take the much cleaner libertarian argument I do, that the government should not be interfering in free, arms-length commercial decision-making at all. 

They are stuck with narrowly opposing just one kind of government interventionism (tax breaks to business) and this leads to a couple of problems in Galstris's argument.  The first is a consistency problem, which you can see in the attorney's letter Glastris quotes.  He argues in the first paragraph of his letter that these tax breaks violate the commerce clause because they unduly influence interstate commerce, then argues in his second paragraph that these tax breaks have no discernible influence on corporate decision making.  Well, if the second part is true, then their logic in the first part can't be true.

The other problem with their argument is that liberals want a commerce clause, as redefined by courts in the 1930's, as enabling massive government intervention, but in this case Glastris is trying to use it in its pre-1930's use, which was restrictive.  If the Glastris wants to take the position that the commerce clause limits state and local businesses from trying to change the decision-making and cost structure of businesses engaged in interstate commerce, wouldn't this same logic extend to making unconstitutional state-based business regulations?  If you can't give a local tax break to a certain industry, doesn't that mean you can't give a higher tax (say on lodging) to another industry?  The specific words of the Ohio decision referenced says:

... the tax scheme discriminates against interstate commerce by granting preferential treatment to in-state investment and activity.

I might ask, if you take this argument, wouldn't laws that make in-state investment and activity less attractive than other states also be unconstitutional? 

One final note.  As a libertarian, I have gone through phases on targeted tax breaks.  There have been times in my life when I have supported tax breaks of any kind to any person for any reason, by the logic that any reduction in taxation is a good thing.  I know there are many libertarians that take this position.  Over time, I have changed my mind.  First, targeted tax breaks seldom in practice reduce the overall tax burden - they tend to be made up somewhere else.  Second, these tax breaks tend to be gross examples of the kind of government coercive technocratic meddling in commerce and individual decision-making that I despise.  Almost always, they are trying to get individuals to do something they would not otherwise do, so in practice they tend to be distorting and carry all kinds of unintended consequences (as well as being philosophically repugnant).