Category Archives: Free markets

Wichita Chamber calls for more cronyism

By advocating for revival of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce continues its advocacy for more business welfare, more taxes, more wasteful government spending, and more cronyism.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsThat may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes,1 2 more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.

Email to Wichita Chamber of Commerce supporters (excerpt).
Email to Wichita Chamber of Commerce supporters (excerpt).
Now the Wichita Chamber is asking members to lobby Kansas representatives in support of the revival of the Export-Import Bank. In an email (read here), the Wichita Chamber speaks approvingly of a maneuver executed successfully in the United States House of Representatives that will force a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. The method used, a discharge petition, was signed by well over a majority of House members, including perhaps 42 Republicans. If the petition signers vote the same way, the bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank will pass the House. It will then move to the Senate for consideration.

No members of the House of Representatives from Kansas signed the discharge petition. In July a vote on an amendment in favor of the Ex-Im Bank passed with 67 votes, including votes from both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.

Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Business groups and government agencies usually favor Ex-Im. Business groups — as distinguished from capitalism. Free-market and capitalism advocacy groups are almost universally opposed.

In testimony to Congress on this matter, The Cato Institute providwed this:

The Export-Import Bank’s main functions of providing loan guarantees, insurance, and direct loans that benefit U.S. exporters are typically justified by Ex-Im Bank’s mission of providing that support when there are instances of “market failure” — i.e., when the private market does not provide those services on its own — or subsidized export finance that benefits foreign competitors. I hope to show that in neither instance is the Ex-Im Bank’s support called for.

Proponents of continued funding for the Ex-Im Bank often cite figures of export-related jobs created by Ex-Im’s finance to claim that the agency benefits the U.S. economy. The opportunity costs, or costs to the rest of the economy, of funding Ex-Im Bank’s activities are, however, never cited. By this logic, we are led to believe that the government export program is virtually cost-free or even provides a net economic gain.

The reality is much different, particularly since the market is a far more efficient allocator of resources than government. While it may be true that the export agency helps a few businesses — only about 2 percent of all U.S. goods and services exports are backed by the Ex-Im Bank — it is highly doubtful that the agency helps the U.S. economy. Indeed, as one Congressional Research Service study noted, “Most economists doubt … that a nation can improve its welfare over the long run by subsidizing exports. Internal economic policies ultimately determine the overall level of a nation’s exports… . By providing financing or insurance for exporters, Ex-Im Bank’s activities draw from the financial resources within the economy that would be available for other uses. Such opportunity costs, while impossible to estimate, potentially could be significant.”

Put another way, the Export-Import Bank is an example of corporate welfare. It benefits a small number of private businesses at the expense of other businesses and taxpaying citizens. That is true even if the agency does not lose money. …

Conclusion

The Export-Import Bank is a New Deal era agency with no relevance in a liberal global economy. It has not helped cause U.S. prosperity, but has certainly imposed opportunity costs larger than any alleged benefits; it has not corrected so-called market failures, but has rewarded foreign countries for failing to adopt market-oriented policies and institutions; and it affects such a small percentage of U.S. exports that even in the face of foreign nations’ wrong-headed, export-finance programs, the “playing field” already seems to favor U.S. businesses. The most important reason, however, that the Export-Import Bank’s charter should not be reauthorized is that it is neither morally correct nor constitutional for the federal government to use general taxpayer money to promote the economic welfare of specific groups.

A statement from Americans for Prosperity read:

Members are right to be frustrated with this attempt to sidestep regular order, especially to revive a defunct institution that represents the worst of Beltway crony capitalism. It’s unfortunate that some are determined not to take even a modest step toward restoring free markets or getting out of the business of special interest deals. Signing this discharge petition is an attempt to bring an inherently corrupt institution back from the dead, and it means siding with corporate lobbyists over taxpayers. Abandoning free-market principles is wrong, but trying to do it with a procedural gimmick just adds insult to injury.

FreedomWorks issued this:

This July, an 80-year-old corporate welfare program known as the U.S. Export-Import Bank was allowed to expire for the first time since its inception. Created by FDR as part of his New Deal, the bank offers taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to companies unable to secure independent financing — in other words, loans too risky for private investors to be willing to finance.

It’s a ridiculous and obsolete program, and while its cost is small in the grand scheme of government spending — $2 billion over years — the difficulty with which it was finally defunded shows the extreme disproportionate influence of special interests in Washington. When conservatives finally succeeded in stopping the Bank’s funding, it was regarded as a huge victory for the opponents of corporate cronyism, proof of the concept that we can stop, or at least roll back, the leviathan if we could only muster the political will. …

It’s cynical in the extreme for politicians to try to sneak this corporate handout past the voters, and anyone who supports the reauthorization should be ashamed of themselves. FreedomWorks has preemptively issued a Key Vote NO on any bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, and will count those votes on our legislative scorecard.

Heritage Foundation has an excellent discussion of the issues at Export–Import Bank: Propaganda versus the Facts.

  1. Weeks, B. (2015). Wichita Chamber speaks on county spending and taxes. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: wichitaliberty.org/sedgwick-county-government/wichita-chamber-speaks-on-county-spending-and-taxes
  2. Weeks, B. (2014). For Wichita Chamber of Commerce chair, it’s sales tax for you, but not for me. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-chamber-commerce-chair-sales-tax

Export-Import Bank threatens a revival

Last week members of the United States House of Representatives successfully executed a maneuver that will force a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The method used, a discharge petition, was signed by well over a majority of House members, including perhaps 42 Republicans. If the petition signers vote the same way, the bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank will pass the House. It will then move to the Senate for consideration.

No members of the House of Representatives from Kansas signed the discharge petition. In July a vote on an amendment in favor of the Ex-Im Bank passed with 67 votes, including votes from both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.

Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Business groups and government agencies usually favor Ex-Im. Business — as distinguished from capitalism. Free-market and capitalism advocacy groups are almost universally opposed. A statement from Americans for Prosperity read:

Members are right to be frustrated with this attempt to sidestep regular order, especially to revive a defunct institution that represents the worst of Beltway crony capitalism. It’s unfortunate that some are determined not to take even a modest step toward restoring free markets or getting out of the business of special interest deals. Signing this discharge petition is an attempt to bring an inherently corrupt institution back from the dead, and it means siding with corporate lobbyists over taxpayers. Abandoning free-market principles is wrong, but trying to do it with a procedural gimmick just adds insult to injury.

FreedomWorks issued this:

This July, an 80-year-old corporate welfare program known as the U.S. Export-Import Bank was allowed to expire for the first time since its inception. Created by FDR as part of his New Deal, the bank offers taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to companies unable to secure independent financing — in other words, loans too risky for private investors to be willing to finance.

It’s a ridiculous and obsolete program, and while its cost is small in the grand scheme of government spending — $2 billion over years — the difficulty with which it was finally defunded shows the extreme disproportionate influence of special interests in Washington. When conservatives finally succeeded in stopping the Bank’s funding, it was regarded as a huge victory for the opponents of corporate cronyism, proof of the concept that we can stop, or at least roll back, the leviathan if we could only muster the political will. …

It’s cynical in the extreme for politicians to try to sneak this corporate handout past the voters, and anyone who supports the reauthorization should be ashamed of themselves. FreedomWorks has preemptively issued a Key Vote NO on any bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, and will count those votes on our legislative scorecard.

Heritage Foundation has an excellent discussion of the issues at Export–Import Bank: Propaganda versus the Facts.

Does Kansas have its own Solyndra?

Does Kansas have its own version of Solyndra, the politically-connected firm that failed and cost taxpayers some $535 million? We don’t know. But the Abengoa cellulosic ethanol plant near Hugoton received a $132.4 million loan guarantee under the same program that benefited Solyndra.

In January I requested documents regarding the Abengoa loan guarantee and risk assessment from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. But after nine months: nothing. Following, from October 2011, more information about this plant.

At this moment, we can’t say that Kansas has its own version of Solyndra, the subsidized and politically-connected solar energy firm that recently shut down its operations and declared bankruptcy. But as far as absorbing the important lessons from Solyndra, we may have another chance to learn them in Kansas.

Solyndra is a failure in several ways. Much money was lost. It may be that corrupt or criminal activity was involved; we don’t know that yet. It appears that Solyndra will be a useful political scandal for Republicans to exploit, especially in the upcoming election campaign against the president. We can be sure that Republicans will keep us informed on this.

But the largest and most important lesson from Solyndra is one that many politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — don’t want to recognize: Government intervention in the economy is wrong for the health of the country.

The problem is that when government intervenes in the economy, it almost always gets it wrong. It’s not that Obama and other politicians aren’t smart. It’s the problems inherent in government interventionism: There will be both routine and spectacular examples of waste, as people — politicians and bureaucrats, especially — are not spending their own money. Decisions will be made to benefit the well-connected and for political, not market-based reasons. Cronyism and corruption flourish, as many will find it easier to compete in the marketplace for politicians rather than in the free market where fickle consumers rule with their fleeting tastes and preferences.

But politicians and bureaucrats love to intervene. For bureaucrats, intervention — government programs, that is — provides jobs, and well-paid jobs, too. Since much government intervention in the economy is in the form of subsidies, it allows politicians to dispense other peoples’ money and take credit for having “created” jobs or having built a bridge, probably to be named for them later on.

Other government intervention is in the form of creating unneeded regulations or tax loopholes that favor politicians’ friends or harm their competition.

All of this means that economic activity is directed according to political, not economic, considerations. It’s wasteful. It’s harmful. It diminishes market-based investment, that is, investment made according to what people really want and need. It reduces the freedom, liberty, and prosperity of everyone.

Back to Kansas: Last week the Department of Energy announced the award of a $132.4 million loan guarantee to Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, LLC. This is the same federal agency and the same loan guarantee program involved in the Solyndra matter. The difference is that it’s an even newer so-called green energy technology involved: cellulosic ethanol production.

The plant in Kansas is to be at Hugoton, in southwest Kansas. The press release from DOE promotes the number of jobs that will be created.

Cellulosic ethanol is produced from plant material that is usually considered waste, such as corn stalks or wheat straw. That’s different from the usual input to ethanol production in America, which is corn that would otherwise be used as animal or human food. Because of this, cellulosic ethanol is thought of by many as the “silver bullet” that will dramatically improve the path of America’s energy future. That may be the case, or it may not be. Because of the reasons listed above, government is particularly unsuited to make that decision and to participate in the scientific and entrepreneurial experimentation that will produce the answer.

At one time President George W. Bush praised the potential of this fuel. A Reuters analysis from July opens with: “The great promise of a car fuel made from cheap, clean-burning prairie grass or wood chips — and not from expensive corn that feeds the world — is more mirage than reality. Despite years of research, testing and some hype, the next-generation ethanol industry is far from the commercial success envisioned by President George W. Bush in 2006, when he pledged so-called cellulosic biofuels would be ‘practical and competitive’ by 2012.”

That hints at the problem: despite much effort, scientists haven’t been able to demonstrate cellulosic ethanol production on a commercially-successful scale. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of this summer, no commercial cellulosic ethanol has been produced.

The loan guarantee is not the only form of government subsidy and boost ethanol producers received. There is a tax credit for each gallon produced and a tariff that protects producers from cheaper imported ethanol.

Despite these very large measures of government intervention, cellulosic ethanol backers blame the government for lack of progress in the industry, citing the government’s failure to mandate production levels and provide assurances that the industry would receive subsidies. And the loan guarantees are not made fast enough, they add to the list of complaints. An analysis by ClimateWire that appeared in the New York Times in January had industry boosters blaming the federal Department of Energy for its slow pace in issuing loan guarantees.

We won’t know the success or failure of the Abengoa plant in Kansas for some time, and now we taxpayers are placed in the position of hoping that it succeeds. But it has the pedigree of a government plan to correct a perceived market failure, and that’s a danger sign.

Both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have spoken approvingly of this plant despite the government intervention involved; Moran in a statement after the announcement, and Roberts in previous years as plans were being made. U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who represents the district where the plant is located, has not commented on this plant, and offered no comment for this story.

The real free lunch: Markets and private property

As we approach another birthday of Milton Friedman, here’s his article where he clears up the authorship of a famous aphorism, and explains how to really get a free lunch. Based on remarks at the banquet celebrating the opening of the Cato Institute’s new building, Washington, May 1993.

I am delighted to be here on the occasion of the opening of the Cato headquarters. It is a beautiful building and a real tribute to the intellectual influence of Ed Crane and his associates.

I have sometimes been associated with the aphorism “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which I did not invent. I wish more attention were paid to one that I did invent, and that I think is particularly appropriate in this city, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” But all aphorisms are half-truths. One of our favorite family pursuits on long drives is to try to find the opposites of aphorisms. For example, “History never repeats itself,” but “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Or “Look before you leap,” but “He who hesitates is lost.” The opposite of “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is clearly “The best things in life are free.”

And in the real economic world, there is a free lunch, an extraordinary free lunch, and that free lunch is free markets and private property. Why is it that on one side of an arbitrary line there was East Germany and on the other side there was West Germany with such a different level of prosperity? It was because West Germany had a system of largely free, private markets — a free lunch. The same free lunch explains the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, and the prosperity of the United States and Great Britain. These free lunches have been the product of a set of invisible institutions that, as F. A. Hayek emphasized, are a product of human action but not of human intention.

Continue reading The real free lunch: Markets and private property

Kansas senators vote to advance Ex-Im Bank

In a procedural motion, Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran voted to advance the revival of the Export-Import Bank. The vote was a procedural motion on an amendment to allow a floor vote (invoking cloture). The amendment passed by a vote of 67 to 26.

Among Republicans the vote was 24 to 26 against the measure. All Democrats voted in favor.

The Export-Import Bank failed to be reauthorized by a June 30 deadline. It has not been making new loans since. The current legislation that passed the senate would reauthorize the bank.

Free market groups have long opposed the Ex-Im Bank, while many business interest groups call it vital.

Are you in the top 1%?

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that they are, in fact, in the top one percent of income — when the entire world is considered. It is economic freedom in America that has been responsible for this high standard of living. But America’s ranking among the countries in economic freedom has declined, and may fall further.

View the 60-second video at Economic Freedom in 60 Seconds, or click below.

ALEC should stand up to liberal pressure groups

From April 2012.

Today’s Wall Street Journal explains how left-wing activists are using fear of the racism label to shut down free speech and debate. The target of their current smear campaign is American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

Liberals can’t stand ALEC because it is a strong and influential advocate for free market and limited government principals in state legislatures. Liberals accuse ALEC of supplying model legislation which may influence the writing of actual state law, or even become state law in some cases. Of course, liberal advocacy groups do this too, but they don’t let that get in the way of their criticism of ALEC.

The reality is that all sorts of people and special interest groups seek to influence the writing of laws. But for laws to take effect — no matter who proposes them — they must be passed by legislatures and signed by the chief executive (or a veto must be overturned).

The false charges of racism are particularly troubling, as no one wants to be labeled as such. That’s why scoundrels demonize their opponents with charges of racism, writes the Journal, and it’s become a powerful weapon for left-wing activists: “The ugly, race-baiting anti-ALEC campaign is typical of today’s liberal activism. It’s akin to the campaigns to smear libertarian donors Charles and David Koch and to exploit shareholder proxies to stop companies from giving to political campaigns or even the Chamber of Commerce. The left these days isn’t content merely to fight on the merits in legislatures or during elections. If they lose, they resort to demonizing opponents and trying to shut them down. The business community had better understand that ALEC won’t be the last target.”

As it turns out, the motivations of some contributors to ALEC are quite narrow. Coca-Cola wanted help from ALEC only in the opposition to soft drink taxes: “So Coke executives are happy to get ALEC’s help in their self-interest but head for the tall grass when ALEC needs a friend.”

Liberals accuse ALEC of being a front group for corporations, promoting only legislation that advances the interests of corporations or business at the expense of others. When you examine specific examples of these charges, the proposals being criticized often reduce taxes for everyone or reduce harmful and unnecessary regulations. If ALEC does promote legislation that caters to special interest groups, it should stop doing so.

Besides services to legislators, ALEC provides a valuable service to the public: The Rich States, Poor States publication that examines why some states perform better in economic growth and opportunity than others. The fifth edition was released last week.

Recently a city council member from a small town asked me if there were resources to help city council or county commission members understand and apply the principals of free markets and limited government to city and county governments. I looked and asked a few people. The answer is no, there appears to be no such resource. This seems like a growth opportunity for ALEC or a new organization. There are several well-known organizations that strive to advance the size and scope of city and county governments, and these need a counter-balance.

Shutting Down ALEC

Playing the race card to silence a free-market policy voice

Is it suddenly disreputable to advocate free-market policies? That’s the question raised by a remarkable political assault on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes reform in the 50 states. Led by former White House aide Van Jones, various left-wing activists and media are bullying big business to cut off ALEC’s funding. So much for free and open debate.

Founded in 1973, ALEC is a group of state lawmakers who meet to share and spread conservative policy ideas. ALEC’s main focus is fiscal and economic policy, notably at the moment pension and lawsuit reform, tax and spending limitation, and school choice. For years it labored in obscurity, its influence rising or falling with the public mood. But after conservatives made record gains in state legislatures in 2010, the left began to target ALEC for destruction.

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (no subscription required)

Coalition to Congress: End the wind production tax credit

Following is a letter from a coalition of organizations led by Americans for Prosperity advocating for the end of special treatment and subsidies for one industry.

September 24, 2013
Dear Senators and Representatives:

On behalf of the millions of members that our organizations represent, we encourage you to oppose extending the main source of federal support for wind energy, the production tax credit (PTC). The problems with bestowing government favors on wind energy are myriad — it doesn’t produce cheaper energy, it threatens electrical grid reliability, it’s inefficient, it’s unprincipled tax policy, to name a few — and it’s time to end this misguided handout.

Proposals to phase out the credit over time are a red herring. A phaseout is still an extension, and it does not address any of the problems that arise from government backing for wind energy. Besides, the PTC in its current form already has a phaseout built in: Wind farm projects may claim the tax credit for 10 years following receiving an investment letter.

In addition, we discourage you from including a PTC extension in a large tax extenders package at the end of the year. This is precisely what happened this past December; a 1-year PTC extension and expansion found its way into the Fiscal Cliff deal at the last minute. This provision expanded wind farm eligibility from those that were already in operation to those that were simply in the planning stages. If Congress is serious about comprehensive tax reform that lowers rates for everyone, then special provisions like the PTC that clutter the tax code should be first on the chopping block.

The PTC is scheduled expire on December 31, 2013. Congress should ensure that it does so as to clear the way for a simpler, less burdensome tax system across the board.

Also, Christine Harbin Hanson, a policy analyst for Americans for Prosperity, contributes the following article:

Kansas wind turbines

Expiring wind subsidies bring a sense of déjà vu to Capitol Hill. The main federal tax break for wind energy, the wind production tax credit (PTC), is on track to expire at the end of the year, and history is poised to repeat itself. This year, Congress should break from the past and end this wasteful handout for the wind industry, once and for all.

Over the next four months, Washington will engage in the same debate as always. The wind industry will claim that it needs even more time and more subsidies to get on its feet. Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity and our coalition partners will point out the numerous economic and philosophical problems with the tax credit — it doesn’t produce cheaper energy, it’s an unreliable energy source, it’s inefficient, it’s not principled, it distorts markets, etc. Over the last twenty years, Congress has repeatedly agreed to the PTC, usually in one or two-year intervals.

This is exactly what happened with this past extension. Big Wind produced a flurry of lobbying activity while Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Biden (D) negotiated a deal to avert the Fiscal Cliff. As Tim Carney noted in the Washington Examiner at the time, this lobbying included “Obama’s closest corporate confidants as well as former congressmen from both parties.” In the end, a 1-year PTC extension and expansion found its way into the Fiscal Cliff deal at the 11th hour, alongside several additional targeted tax credits for renewable energy. Not only was the subsidy extended but it was expanded from wind farms that were already in operation to those that were simply in the planning stages.

This upcoming expiration has a plot twist: The American Wind Energy Association senses that its D.C. gravy train may be coming to an end and it will likely propose phasing down the tax credit over a period of years. Congress should avoid this trap. A phaseout is still an extension, and it does not address the problems that arise from subsidizing wind energy. Besides, the PTC in its current form already has a phaseout built in: wind farm projects may claim the tax credit for 10 years following receiving an investment letter.

Washington may be wising up to the pitfalls of using federal incentives to encourage politically-favored energy sources. Grants and loan guarantees are drying up, tarnished by repeated failures like Solyndra, Beacon Power, Ener1, A123 Systems and the list goes on-and-on. The main tax breaks for ethanol have also gone away, and momentum is building in Congress to repeal green energy mandates like the renewable fuel standard. This phase out proposal is Big Wind’s attempt to get more drink at the taxpayer trough.

Laughably, the only group calling for making the tax credit permanent is the White House. Apparently the Obama administration has still not learned from its repeated green energy failures, showing just how out of touch it is with economic realities.

Congress should end—not phase down, not extend—the wind production tax credit this year. Americans deserve energy solutions that can make it on their own in the marketplace—not ones that need to be propped up by government indefinitely. Washington’s long-time policy of giving preferential tax treatment to special interests simply isn’t working.

The real free lunch: Markets and private property

As we approach another birthday of Milton Friedman, here’s his article where he clears up the authorship of a famous aphorism, and explains how to really get a free lunch. Based on remarks at the banquet celebrating the opening of the Cato Institute’s new building, Washington, May 1993.

I am delighted to be here on the occasion of the opening of the Cato headquarters. It is a beautiful building and a real tribute to the intellectual influence of Ed Crane and his associates.

I have sometimes been associated with the aphorism “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which I did not invent. I wish more attention were paid to one that I did invent, and that I think is particularly appropriate in this city, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” But all aphorisms are half-truths. One of our favorite family pursuits on long drives is to try to find the opposites of aphorisms. For example, “History never repeats itself,” but “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Or “Look before you leap,” but “He who hesitates is lost.” The opposite of “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is clearly “The best things in life are free.”

And in the real economic world, there is a free lunch, an extraordinary free lunch, and that free lunch is free markets and private property. Why is it that on one side of an arbitrary line there was East Germany and on the other side there was West Germany with such a different level of prosperity? It was because West Germany had a system of largely free, private markets — a free lunch. The same free lunch explains the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, and the prosperity of the United States and Great Britain. These free lunches have been the product of a set of invisible institutions that, as F. A. Hayek emphasized, are a product of human action but not of human intention.

At the moment, we in the United States have available to us, if we will take it, something that is about as close to a free lunch as you can have. After the fall of communism, everybody in the world agreed that socialism was a failure. Everybody in the world, more or less, agreed that capitalism was a success. The funny thing is that every capitalist country in the world apparently concluded that therefore what the West needed was more socialism. That’s obviously absurd, so let’s look at the opportunity we now have to get a nearly free lunch. President Clinton has said that what we need is widespread sacrifice and concentrated benefits. What we really need is exactly the opposite. What we need and what we can have — what is the nearest thing to a free lunch — is widespread benefits and concentrated sacrifice. It’s not a wholly free lunch, but it’s close.

Let me give a few examples. The Rural Electrification Administration was established to bring electricity to farms in the 1930s, when about 80 percent of the farms did not have electricity. When 100 percent of the farms had electricity, the REA shifted to telephone service. Now 100 percent of the farms have telephone service, but the REA goes merrily along. Suppose we abolish the REA, which is just making low-interest loans to concentrated interests, mostly electric and telephone companies. The people of the United States would be better off; they’d save a lot of money that could be used for tax reductions. Who would be hurt? A handful of people who have been getting government subsidies at the expense of the rest of the population. I call that pretty nearly a free lunch.

Another example illustrates Parkinson’s law in agriculture. In 1945 there were 10 million people, either family or hired workers, employed on farms, and the Department of Agriculture had 80,000 employees. In 1992 there were 3 million people employed on farms, and the Department of Agriculture had 122,000 employees.

Nearly every item in the federal budget offers a similar opportunity. The Clinton people will tell you that all of those things are in the budget because people want the goodies but are just too stingy to pay for them. That’s utter nonsense. The people don’t want those goodies. Suppose you put to the American people a simple proposition about sugar: We can set things up so that the sugar you buy is produced primarily from beets and cane grown on American farms or so the sugar in addition comes without limit from El Salvador or the Philippines or somewhere else. If we restrict you to home-grown sugar, it will be two or three times as expensive as if we include sugar from abroad. Which do you really think voters would choose? The people don’t want to pay higher prices. A small group of special interests, which reaps concentrated benefits, wants them to, and that is why sugar in the United States costs several times the world price. The people were never consulted. We are not governed by the people; that’s a myth carried over from Abraham Lincoln’s day. We don’t have government of the people, by the people, for the people. We have government of the people, by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats.

Consider another myth. President Clinton says he’s the agent of change. That is false. He gets away with saying that because of the tendency to refer to the 12 Reagan-Bush years as if they were one period. They weren’t. We had Reaganomics, then Bushonomics, and now we have Clintonomics. Reaganomics had four simple principles: lower marginal tax rates, less regulation, restrained government spending, noninflationary monetary policy. Though Reagan did not achieve all of his goals, he made good progress. Bush’s policy was exactly the reverse of Reaganomics: higher tax rates, more regulation, more government spending. What is Clinton’s policy? Higher tax rates, more regulation, more government spending. Clintonomics is a continuation of Bushonomics, and we know what the results of reversing Reaganomics were.

On a more fundamental level, our present problems, both economic and noneconomic, arise mainly from the drastic change that has occurred during the past six decades in the relative importance of two different markets for determining who gets what, when, where, and how. Those markets are the economic market operating under the incentive of profit and the political market operating under the incentive of power. In my lifetime the relative importance of the economic market has declined in terms of the fraction of the country’s resources that it is able to use. And the importance of the political, or government, market has greatly expanded. We have been starving the market that has been working and feeding the market that has been failing. That’s essentially the story of the past 60 years.

We Americans are far wealthier today than we were 60 years ago. But we are less free. And we are less secure. When I graduated from high school in 1928, total government spending at all levels in the United States was a little over 10 percent of the national income. Two-thirds of that spending was state and local. Federal government spending was about 3 percent of the national income, or roughly what it had been since the Constitution was adopted a century and a half earlier, except for periods of major war. Half of federal spending was for the army and the navy. State and local government spending was something like 7 to 9 percent, and half of that was for schools and roads. Today, total government spending at all levels is 43 percent of the national income, and two-thirds of that is federal, one-third state and local. The federal portion is 30 percent of national income, or about 10 times what it was in 1928.

That figure understates the fraction of resources being absorbed by the political market. In addition to its own spending, the government mandates that all of us make a great many expenditures, something it never used to do. Mandated spending ranges from the requirement that you pay for antipollution devices on your automobiles, to the Clean Air Bill, to the Aid for Disability Act; you can go down the line. Essentially, the private economy has become an agent of the federal government. Everybody in this room was working for the federal government about a month ago filling out income tax returns. Why shouldn’t you have been paid for being tax collectors for the federal government? So I would estimate that at least 50 percent of the total productive resources of our nation are now being organized through the political market. In that very important sense, we are more than half socialist.

So much for input, what about output? Consider the private market first. There has been an absolutely tremendous increase in our living standards, due almost entirely to the private market. In 1928 radio was in its early stages, television was a futuristic dream, airplanes were all propeller driven, a trip to New York from where my family lived 20 miles away in New Jersey was a great event. Truly, a revolution has occurred in our material standard of living. And that revolution has occurred almost entirely through the private economic market. Government’s contribution was essential but not costly. Its contribution, which it’s not making nearly as well as it did at an earlier time, was to protect private property rights and to provide a mechanism for adjudicating disputes. But the overwhelming bulk of the revolution in our standard of living came through the private market.

Whereas the private market has produced a higher standard of living, the expanded government market has produced mainly problems. The contrast is sharp. Both Rose and I came from families with incomes that by today’s standards would be well below the so-called poverty line. We both went to government schools, and we both thought we got a good education. Today the children of families that have incomes corresponding to what we had then have a much harder time getting a decent education. As children, we were able to walk to school; in fact, we could walk in the streets without fear almost everywhere. In the depth of the Depression, when the number of truly disadvantaged people in great trouble was far larger than it is today, there was nothing like the current concern over personal safety, and there were few panhandlers littering the streets. What you had on the street were people trying to sell apples. There was a sense of self-reliance that, if it hasn’t disappeared, is much less prevalent.

In 1938 you could even find an apartment to rent in New York City. After we got married and moved to New York, we looked in the apartments-available column in the newspaper, chose half a dozen we wanted to look at, did so, and rented one. People used to give up their apartments in the spring, go away for the summer, and come back in the autumn to find new apartments. It was called the moving season. In New York today, the best way to find an apartment is probably to keep track of the obituary columns. What’s produced that difference? Why is New York housing a disaster today? Why does the South Bronx look like parts of Bosnia that have been bombed? Not because of the private market, obviously, but because of rent control.

Despite the current rhetoric, our real problems are not economic. I am inclined to say that our real problems are not economic despite the best efforts of government to make them so. I want to cite one figure. In 1946 government assumed responsibility for producing full employment with the Full Employment Act. In the years since then, unemployment has averaged 5.7 percent. In the years from 1900 to 1929 when government made no pretense of being responsible for employment, unemployment averaged 4.6 percent. So, our unemployment problem too is largely government created. Nonetheless, the economic problems are not the real ones.

Our major problems are social — deteriorating education, lawlessness and crime, homelessness, the collapse of family values, the crisis in medical care, teenage pregnancies. Every one of these problems has been either produced or exacerbated by the well-intentioned efforts of government. It’s easy to document two things: that we’ve been transferring resources from the private market to the government market and that the private market works and the government market doesn’t.

It’s far harder to understand why supposedly intelligent, well-intentioned people have produced these results. One reason, as we all know, that is certainly part of the answer is the power of special interests. But I believe that a more fundamental answer has to do with the difference between the self-interest of individuals when they are engaged in the private market and the self-interest of individuals when they are engaged in the political market. If you’re engaged in a venture in the private market and it begins to fail, the only way you can keep it going is to dig into your own pocket. So you have a strong incentive to shut it down. On the other hand, if you start exactly the same enterprise in the government sector, with exactly the same prospects for failure, and it begins to fail, you have a much better alternative. You can say that your project or program should really have been undertaken on a bigger scale; and you don’t have to dig into your own pocket, you have a much deeper pocket into which to dig, that of the taxpayer. In perfectly good conscience you can try to persuade, and typically succeed in persuading, not the taxpayer, but the congressmen, that yours is really a good project and that all it needs is a little more money. And so, to coin another aphorism, if a private venture fails, it’s closed down. If a government venture fails, it’s expanded.

We sometimes think the solution to our problems is to elect the right people to Congress. I believe that’s false, that if a random sample of the people in this room were to replace the 435 people in the House and the 100 people in the Senate, the results would be much the same. With few exceptions, the people in Congress are decent people who want to do good. They’re not deliberately engaging in activities that they know will do harm. They are simply immersed in an environment in which all the pressures are in one direction, to spend more money.

Recent studies demonstrate that most of the pressure for more spending comes from the government itself. It’s a self-generating monstrosity. In my opinion, the only way we can change it is by changing the incentives under which the people in government operate. If you want people to act differently, you have to make it in their own self-interest to do so. As Armen Alchan always says, there’s one thing you can count on everybody in the world to do, and that’s to put his self-interest above yours.

I have no magic formula for changing the self-interest of bureaucrats and members of Congress. Constitutional amendments to limit taxes and spending, to rule out monetary manipulation, and to inhibit market distortions would be fine, but we’re not going to get them. The only viable thing on the national horizon is the term-limits movement. A six-year term limit for representatives would not change their basic nature, but it would change drastically the kinds of people who would seek election to Congress and the incentives under which they would operate. I believe that those of us who are interested in trying to reverse the allocation of our resources, to shift more and more to the private market and less and less to the government market, must disabuse ourselves of the notion that all we need to do is elect the right people. At one point we thought electing the right president would do it. We did and it didn’t. We have to turn our attention to changing the incentives under which people operate. The movement for term limits is one way of doing that; it’s an excellent idea, and it’s making real progress. There have to be other movements as well.

Some changes are being made on the state level. Wherever you have initiative, that is, popular referendum, there is an opportunity to change. I don’t believe in pure democracy; nobody believes in pure democracy. Nobody believes that it’s appropriate to kill 49 percent of the population even if 51 percent of the people vote to do so. But we do believe in giving everybody the opportunity to use his own resources as effectively as he can to promote his own values as long as he doesn’t interfere with anybody else. And on the whole, experience has shown that the public at large, through the initiative process, is much more attuned to that objective than are the people they elect to the legislature. So I believe that the referendum process has to be exploited. In California we have been working very hard on an initiative to allow parental choice of schools. Effective parental choice will be on the ballot this fall. Maybe we won’t win it, but we’ve got to keep trying.

We’ve got to keeping trying to change the way Americans think about the role of government. Cato does that by, among other things, documenting in detail the harmful effects of government policies that I’ve swept over in broad generalities. The American public is being taken to the cleaners. As the people come to understand what is going on, the intellectual climate will change, and we may be able to initiate institutional changes that will establish appropriate incentives for the people who control the government purse strings and so large a part of our lives.

Wichita airfares, on the rise

Airplane

A survey by travel website CheapFlights.com shows that airfares in Wichita have both fallen and risen in recent years, even though the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, and the State of Kansas collectively spend millions each year to keep airfares low.

The survey, according to a news release, ranks airports by “averaging the prices our users found during the month of June when searching for flights to popular domestic and international destinations like Miami, Honolulu, London and Cancun.”

The news release warns that “These rankings can shift dramatically from year to year and prices fluctuate frequently on specific routes.”

Since this is the fourth year for this survey, I thought it would be interesting to see how airfares in Wichita have fared over the timeframe of this survey. An interactive visualization is presented below.

wichita-airfares-compared-2013-07

Here is an illustration of Wichita airfares compared to the other airports included in the survey, which for 2013 included the 101 most popular airports. You can see that based on the data gathered for this study, the average airfare declined, but then rose. Wichita’s rank among airports rose, accordingly. (In the airfare rankings in this survey, a higher rank means higher airfares, relative to other airports.)

This data should inspire us to re-examine whether the taxpayer-funded effort to reduce airfares in Wichita has produced the desired result.

There have been other audits or studies which have questioned the efficacy of Wichita’s airport subsidy program. See Affordable Airfares audit embarrassing to Wichita for an example.

I’ve created an interactive visualization from this data. Use the visualization below, or click here to open the visualization in a new window, which may work better for some users. Click on an airport name to highlight its fares against other airports. Use Ctrl+click to add other airports.

Data is from CheapClights.com. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Wichita movie theater expands product line, now selling groceries

warren-theater-brewers-best-bbq-sauce-smallPossibly seeking to take advantage of impulse purchases while patrons buy movie tickets, a Warren Theater in Wichita has started carrying a limited line of grocery items.

A reader submitted this photo, commenting: “I went to the taxpayer-subsidized Warren Theater this weekend, and who was staring back at me across the counter — none other than the smiling face of the mayor. Warren has a display set up to sell Brewer BBQ sauce and my sandwich included an (unrequested) cup of the stuff.”

The sauce in the photo is produced and marketed by Brewer’s Best, a company recently founded by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

It is unknown whether Mayor Brewer plans to create other grocery products for Warren Theaters to sell.

Wichita STAR bonds project not good for capitalism

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers approval of the project plan for a STAR bonds project in Wichita.

The formation of the district has already been approved. This action by the council will consider the development plan and the actual authorization to spend money.

If approved, the city will proceed under the State of Kansas STAR bonds program. The city will sell bonds and turn over the proceeds to the developer. As bond payments become due, sales tax revenue will make the payments.

It’s only the increment in sales tax that is eligible to be diverted to bond payments. This increment is calculated by first determining a base level of sales for the district. Then, as new development comes online — or as sales rise at existing merchants — the increased sales tax over the base is diverted to pay the STAR bonds. Estimates are that annual revenue available for the bonds will be over $5,000,000.

For this district, the time period used to determine the base level of sales tax is February 2011 through January 2012. A new Cabela’s store opened in March 2012, and it’s located in the STAR bonds district. Since Cabela’s sales during the period used to calculate the base period was $0, the store’s entire sales tax collections will be used to benefit the STAR bonds developer.

(There are a few minor exceptions, such as the special CID tax Cabela’s collects for its own benefit.)

Which begs the question: Why is the Cabela’s store included in the boundaries of the STAR bonds district?

With sales estimated at $35 million per year, the state has been receiving around $2 million per year in sales tax from this store. But after the STAR bonds are sold, that money won’t be flowing to the state. Instead, it will be used to pay off bonds that benefit the project’s developer.

Some questions

Curiously, the city doesn’t provide a cost-benefit study for this project. This is the usual mechanism the city relies on as justification for investments in economic development projects.

Often developers ask government for incentives because they claim the project is not economically feasible without assistance. Is that the case with this development? If not, why the need for subsidies?

And if taxpayer subsidy is required for this development, we need to ask what it is about Kansas that discourages this type of business investment.

STAR bonds should be opposed as they turn over tax policy to the private sector. We should look at taxation as a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way.

But STAR bonds turn tax policy over to the private sector for personal benefit. The money is collected under the pretense of government authority, but it is collected for the exclusive benefit of the owners of property in the STAR bonds district.

Citizens should be asking this: Why do we need taxation, if we can simply excuse some from participating in the system?

Another question: In the words of the Kansas Department of Commerce, the STAR bonds program offers “municipalities the opportunity to issue bonds to finance the development of major commercial, entertainment and tourism areas and use the sales tax revenue generated by the development to pay off the bonds.” This description, while generally true, is not accurate. This STAR bonds district includes much area beyond the borders of the proposed development, including a Super Target store, a new Cabela’s store, and much vacant ground that will probably be developed as retail. The increment in sales taxes from these stores — present and future — goes to the STAR bond developer. As we’ve seen, since the Cabela’s store did not exist during the time the base level of sales was determined, all of its sales count towards the increment.

STAR bonds, or capitalism?

In economic impact and effect, the STAR bonds program is a government spending program. Except: Like many spending programs implemented through the tax system, legislative appropriations are not required. No one has to vote to spend on a specific project. Can you imagine the legislature voting to grant $5 million per year to a proposed development in northeast Wichita? That doesn’t seem likely. Few members would want to withstand the scrutiny of having voted in favor of such blatant cronyism.

But under tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds, that’s exactly what happens — except for the legislative voting part, and the accountability that sometimes follow.

Government spending programs like STAR bonds are sold to legislators as jobs programs. Development, it is said, will not happen unless project developers receive incentives through these spending programs. Since no legislator wants to be seen voting against jobs, many are susceptible to the seductive promise of jobs.

But often these same legislators are in favor of tax cuts to create jobs. This is the case in the Kansas House, where many Republican members are in favor of reducing the state’s income tax as a way of creating economic growth and jobs. On this issue, these members are correct.

But many of the same members voted in favor of tax expenditure programs like the STAR bonds program. These two positions cannot be reconciled. If government taxing and spending is bad, it is especially bad when part of tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds. And there’s plenty of evidence that government spending and taxation is a drag on the economy.

It’s not just legislators that are holding these incongruous views. Secretary of Commerce Pat George promoted the STAR bonds program to legislators. Governor Sam Brownback supported the program.

When Brownback and a new, purportedly more conservative Kansas House took office, I wondered whether Kansas would pursue a business-friendly or capitalism-friendly path: “Plans for the Kansas Republican Party to make Kansas government more friendly to business run the risk of creating false, or crony capitalism instead of an environment of genuine growth opportunity for all business.” I quoted John Stossel:

The word “capitalism” is used in two contradictory ways. Sometimes it’s used to mean the free market, or laissez faire. Other times it’s used to mean today’s government-guided economy. Logically, “capitalism” can’t be both things. Either markets are free or government controls them. We can’t have it both ways.

The truth is that we don’t have a free market — government regulation and management are pervasive — so it’s misleading to say that “capitalism” caused today’s problems. The free market is innocent.

But it’s fair to say that crony capitalism created the economic mess.

But wait, you may say: Isn’t business and free-market capitalism the same thing? Not at all. Here’s what Milton Friedman had to say: “There’s a widespread belief and common conception that somehow or other business and economics are the same, that those people who are in favor of a free market are also in favor of everything that big business does. And those of us who have defended a free market have, over a long period of time, become accustomed to being called apologists for big business. But nothing could be farther from the truth. There’s a real distinction between being in favor of free markets and being in favor of whatever business does.” (emphasis added.)

Friedman also knew very well of the discipline of free markets and how business will try to avoid it: “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system. Naturally, existing businesses generally prefer to keep out competitors in other ways. That is why the business community, despite its rhetoric, has so often been a major enemy of truly free enterprise.”

The danger of Kansas government having a friendly relationship with Kansas business is that the state will circumvent free markets and promote crony, or false, capitalism in Kansas. It’s something that we need to be on the watch for. The existence of the STAR bonds program lets us know that a majority of Kansas legislators — including many purported fiscal conservatives — prefer crony capitalism over free enterprise and genuine capitalism.

The problem

Government bureaucrats and politicians promote programs like STAR bonds as targeted investment in our economic future. They believe that they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Kansas economy.

Arnold King has written about the ability of government experts to decide what investments should be made with public funds. There’s a problem with knowledge and power:

As Hayek pointed out, knowledge that is important in the economy is dispersed. Consumers understand their own wants and business managers understand their technological opportunities and constraints to a greater degree than they can articulate and to a far greater degree than experts can understand and absorb.

When knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, I call this the knowledge-power discrepancy. Such discrepancies can arise in large firms, where CEOs can fail to appreciate the significance of what is known by some of their subordinates. … With government experts, the knowledge-power discrepancy is particularly acute.

Despite this knowledge problem, Kansas legislators are willing to give power to bureaucrats in the Department of Commerce who feel they have the necessary knowledge to direct the investment of public funds. One thing is for sure: the state and its bureaucrats have the power to make these investments. They just don’t have — they can’t have — the knowledge as to whether these are wise.

What to do

The STAR bonds program is an “active investor” approach to economic development. Its government spending on business leads to taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Kansas and many of its cities employ: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.'”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Government spending on specific companies through programs like STAR bonds is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies at all levels of government that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.

Public Hearing Considering the Adoption of a STAR Bond Project Plan for the K-96 Greenwich Star Bond Projec… by

Wind tax credit promotes expensive electricity

Conservative and free-market groups are asking Congress to oppose extending the Production Tax Credit for production of electricity from wind.

The letter, presented below, is designed for representatives from states that don’t have a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which is a policy or law that requires a certain amount of electricity to be produced from renewable sources, which is primarily wind in most places. Kansas has an RPS, and Governor Sam Brownback actively supports maintaining this standard, which will require that more Kansas electricity be produced from wind. Kansas Policy Institute has found that RPS will result in higher electricity costs, fewer jobs, and less investment in Kansas. Its summary is at The Economic Impact of the Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standard, and the full report is here.

The letter points out that the PTC has the effect of transferring subsidy from states without RPS to those states, like Kansas, that do.

December 12, 2012
Dear Members of Congress:

We write to urge your opposition to extending the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC). Created in 1992 by the Energy Policy Act, the PTC has far outlived its usefulness. Moreover, as a member of Congress serving a state that does not have a renewable energy mandate, you should be aware that the PTC essentially transfers taxpayer dollars from your constituents and subsidizes the states with such mandates. Renewable energy mandates force utilities to buy politically-favored forms of energy such as wind, while your state has wisely chosen to allow the most abundant and affordable forms of energy to be purchased by consumers and industries.

The wind PTC provides a tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, and lasts for ten years for anyone receiving it. With the wholesale price of electricity frequently ranging from 2.5 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, the PTC is worth a large percentage of the total price. This makes the wind industry one of the most heavily subsidized forms of energy. In 2010, federal subsidies paid $56 for every megawatt hour of wind energy compared to $0.64 for coal and natural gas electricity.

Despite having this generous subsidy for two decades, wind only produces 3 percent of America’s electricity. This corporate dependence on federal subsidies not only harms the taxpayers who finance the PTC, it also creates an improper incentive for wind companies to focus on obtaining lucrative subsidies rather than long-term sustainability and competitiveness. It is time the wind energy industry stood on its own and continued funding by the federal government will only hurt cost-effective energy sources as well as American taxpayers.

Lastly, for the twenty-one states that do not have a renewable energy mandate in place — states like your own — the stakes are much higher. Under the structure of the PTC, the bulk of the tax credits flow to those states that have the most wind generation capacity and those happen to be states with an RPS. This is because the PTC helps to disguise the true cost of the mandate. Extending the wind PTC ensures that your constituents will continue to subsidize wind power in other states that have made political decisions to force consumers to buy more expensive and less reliable forms of energy — like wind.

Reliable, affordable, and ‘always on’ electricity is critical to get our economy back on track. The wind PTC promotes unreliable and expensive energy to the detriment of dependable and cost-effective forms of electricity generation. By taking a principled stand against the PTC, you help taxpayers in your own state and ensure more cost-effective electricity generation overall. We urge you to allow this wasteful subsidy to expire, as planned, at the end of the year.

Freedom Action
Competitive Enterprise Institute
American Conservative Union
American Energy Alliance
Heritage Action
American Commitment

Nation can no longer afford wind tax credit

From The Hill:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Wednesday said the nation’s fiscal situation has become so dire that the government can no longer afford to maintain a wind power production credit that has been in place since in 1992.

“I think there is certainly the largest realization that we’ve ever had that it’s time for it to end,” Alexander said at a Wednesday event hosted by The Hill and sponsored by the American Energy Alliance.

In a longer story, The Hill reports on the efforts of U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican representing the Kansas fourth district (Wichita metropolitan area and surrounding counties) to end the wind production tax credit:

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) said he hopes that conversation leads to the elimination of all energy subsidies.

Pompeo has led the House charge against the credit. He got 46 other House GOP members to sign a September letter urging Boehner to nix the provision.

Pompeo said the wind credit’s history is instructive when debating the benefits of tax carve-outs for specific industries.

He pointed to a steep decline in wind turbine installations when the credit last lapsed in 2004 as proof that subsidies distort markets and investment. And planned projects and investments already are down for next year as a result of the credit’s cloudy future.

“I think that’s further evidence that it’s non-economic,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo has been at the forefront of efforts to end subsidies that distort energy markets. He and Alexander recently contributed an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, which may be read at Puff, the Magic Drag on the Economy: Time to let the pernicious production tax credit for wind power blow away. Pompeo also develops the argument in Governor Romney is right: End the wind production tax credit and Mike Pompeo: We need capitalism, not cronyism. The special interests that benefit from cronyism have struck back, but unsuccessfully: Kerr’s attacks on Pompeo’s energy policies fall short.

I, Pencil: The Movie

“The spontaneous configuration of creative human energies, of millions of people, with their various skills and talents, organizing voluntarily in response to human necessity and desire — as if led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of the intention.”

This is part of the narration from a new short movie I, Pencil, produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Lawrence W. Reed, President of Foundation for Economic Education says about this movie: “For more than half a century, Leonard Read’s classic story has opened eyes and changed minds by the hundreds of thousands. It humbles even the high and mighty as it reveals the wondrous achievements of individuals whose contributions are coordinated by nothing more than incentives and market prices. This film guarantees that the insights of Read’s humble pencil will continue to work their magic for many years to come!”

A companion website I, Pencil, a film series from CEI has video of additional commentary, curriculum, educational resources, and many other items of interest in learning about how free markets work to bring us not only the things we need, but the things we want that make life better.

Koch articles draw critics, but few factual

Two large articles in the Wichita Eagle regarding Charles and David Koch of Wichita-based Koch Industries have attracted many comments, and many are not based on facts.

The two articles are The Kochs’ quest to save America and Charles Koch relentless in pursuing his goals.

A curious irony is the claim by many comment writers that Charles and David Koch want to buy America, while at the same time they are running it into the ground: “The koch bros. are funding the conversion of OUR COUNTRY into another third world country.”

Even if it was possible to buy America — whatever that means — why would someone destroy it first?

Another common thread in the comments is that Charles and David Koch didn’t complain about government spending, subsidy, regulation, etc. before President Barack Obama was elected. In fact, they have been working to promote free markets and economic freedom for many decades. Charles Koch and two others founded what became the Cato Institute in 1974, nearly four decades ago. Even earlier: A recent issue of Koch Industries Discovery newsletter contains a story titled “Don’t subsidize me.” Here’s an excerpt:

When Charles Koch was in his 20s, he attended a business function hosted by his father. At that event, Fred Koch introduced Charles to a local oilman.

When the independent oilman politely asked about the young man’s interests, Charles began talking about all he was doing to promote economic freedom.

“Wow!” said the oilman, who was so impressed he wanted to introduce the young bachelor to his eligible daughter.

But when Charles mentioned he was in favor of eliminating the government’s oil import quota, which subsidized domestic producers, the oilman exploded in rage.

“Your father ought to lock you in a cell!” he yelled, jabbing his finger into Charles’ chest. “You’re worse than a Communist!”

It seems the oilman was all for the concept of free markets — unless it meant he had to compete on equal terms.

Under oath

For more than 50 years, Charles Koch has consistently promoted economic freedom, even when it was not in the company’s immediate financial interest.

In the 1960s, Koch was willing to testify before a powerful Congressional committee that he was against the oil import quota — a very popular political measure at the time.

“I think it’s fair to say my audience was less than receptive,” recalls Koch.

Years later, Koch warned an independent energy association about the dangers of subsidies and mandates.

“We avoid the short-run temptation to impose regulatory burdens on competitors. We don’t lobby for subsidies that penalize taxpayers for our benefit.

“This is our philosophy because we believe this will produce the most favorable conditions in the long run,” Koch said.

Many comments take the company to task for accepting oil and ethanol subsidies. Koch Industries, as a refiner of oil, blends ethanol with the gasoline it produces in order to meet federal mandates that require ethanol usage. Even though Koch opposed subsidies for ethanol — as it opposes all subsidies — Koch accepted the subsidies. A company newsletter explained “Once a law is enacted, we are not going to place our company and our employees at a competitive disadvantage by not participating in programs that are available to our competitors.” (The tax credit subsidy program for ethanol has ended, but there is still the mandate for its use in gasoline.)

Regarding oil subsidies, the programs that are most commonly cited (percentage depletion and expensing of intangible drilling costs) apply to producers of oil — the companies that drill holes and pump up oil. Koch Industries doesn’t do that. The company doesn’t benefit from these programs.

Other comments charge that Koch Industries wants to end regulation so that it can pollute as much as it wants. This is another ridiculous charge not based on facts.

A statement on the KochFacts website states “recent critics have also claimed that Koch is one of the nation’s top 10 polluters. This study confuses pollution with permitted emissions, which are carefully regulated by the U.S. EPA and other agencies. The index labels as ‘polluters’ Ford Motor, General Motors, GE, Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, Sony, Honeywell, Berkshire Hathaway, Kimberly Clark, Anheuser Busch and Goodyear — corporations, like Koch companies, with significant manufacturing in the U.S. Emissions, a necessary by-product of manufacturing, are strictly monitored and legally permitted by federal, state and local governments.”

Say: Didn’t the U.S. government take over General Motors, and continues to hold a large stake in the company? And GE and Berkshire Hathaway: Aren’t those run by personal friends of Barack Obama?

The reality is that manufacturing has become much more efficient with regards to emissions, and Koch Industries companies have lead the way. One report from the company illustrates such progress: “Over the last three years, Koch Carbon has spent $10 million to enhance environmental performance, including $5 million for dust abatement at one of its petroleum coke handling facilities. These investments have paid off. In 2008, Koch Carbon’s reportable emissions were 6.5 percent less than in 2000, while throughput increased 10.4 percent.”

Even when Koch Industries does not agree with the need for specific regulations, the company, nonetheless, complies. Writing about an increase in regulation in the 2007 book The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company, Charles Koch explained the importance of regulatory compliance: “This reality required is to make a cultural change. We needed to be uncompromising, to expect 100 percent of our employees to comply 100 percent of the time with complex and ever-changing government mandates. Striving to comply with every law does not mean agreeing with every law. But, even when faced with laws we think are counter-productive, we must first comply. Only then, from a credible position, can we enter into a dialogue with regulatory agencies to determine alternatives that are more beneficial. If these efforts fail, we can then join with others in using education and/or political efforts to change the law.”

Koch companies have taken leadership roles in environmental compliance, explains another KochFacts page: “In 2000, EPA recognized Koch Petroleum Group for being ‘the first petroleum company to step forward’ to reach a comprehensive Clean Air Act agreement involving EPA and state regulatory agencies in Minnesota and Texas. Despite fundamental policy disagreements, then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner acknowledged Koch’s cooperation. She characterized the agreement as ‘innovative and comprehensive’ and praised the ‘unprecedented cooperation’ of Koch in stepping forward ahead of its industry peers.” Browner was no friend of industry, and had a “record as a strict enforcer of environmental laws during the Clinton years,” according to the New York Times.

What may really gall liberals and Koch critics is this: They believe that a powerful and expansive government is good for the country. But what we have is a complicated machine that a company like General Electric can exploit for huge profits, all without creating things that consumers value. Charles Koch calls for an end to this, as he wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal: “Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”

The political Left just can’t believe that anyone would write that and really mean it.

Pompeo: Wind production tax credit should expire

U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican who represents the Kansas fourth district, and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander contribute the following article on the harm of the wind power production tax credit (PTC). The NorthBridge Group report referenced in the article is available at Negative electricity prices and the production tax credit.

Puff, the Magic Drag on the Economy
Time to let the pernicious production tax credit for wind power blow away

By Lamar Alexander And Mike Pompeo

As Congress works to reduce spending and avert a debt crisis, lawmakers will have to decide which government projects are truly national priorities, and which are wasteful. A prime example of the latter is the production tax credit for wind power. It is set to expire on Dec. 31 — but may be extended yet again, for the seventh time.

This special provision in the tax code was first enacted in 1992 as a temporary subsidy to enable a struggling industry to become competitive. Today the provision provides a credit against taxes of $22 per megawatt hour of wind energy generated.

From 2009 to 2013, federal revenues lost to wind-power developers are estimated to be $14 billion — $6 billion from the production tax credit, plus $8 billion courtesy of an alternative-energy subsidy in the stimulus package — according to the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Treasury Department. If Congress were to extend the production tax credit, it would mean an additional $12 billion cost to taxpayers over the next 10 years.

There are many reasons to let this giveaway expire, including wind energy’s inherent unreliability and its inability to stand on its own two feet after 20 years. But one of the most compelling reasons is provided in a study released Sept. 14 by the NorthBridge Group, an energy consultancy. The study discusses a government-created economic distortion called “negative pricing.”

This is how it works. Coal- and nuclear-fired plants provide a reliable supply of electricity when the demand is high, as on a hot summer day. They generate at lower levels when the demand is low, such as at night.

But wind producers collect a tax credit for every kilowatt hour they generate, whether utilities need the electricity or not. If the wind is blowing, they keep cranking the windmills.

Why? The NorthBridge Group’s report (“Negative Electricity Prices and the Production Tax Credit”) finds that government largess is so great that wind producers can actually pay the electrical grid to take their power when demand is low and still turn a profit by collecting the credit — and they are increasingly doing so. The wind pretax subsidy is actually higher than the average price for electricity in many of the wholesale markets tracked by the Energy Information Administration.

This practice drives the price of electricity down in the short run. Wind-energy supporters say that’s a good thing. But it is hazardous to the economy’s health in the long run.

Temporarily lower energy prices driven by wind-power’s negative pricing will cripple clean-coal and nuclear-power companies. But running coal and nuclear out of business is not good for the U.S. economy. There is no way a country like this one — which uses 20% to 25% of all the electricity in the world — can operate with generators that turn only when the wind blows.

The Obama administration and other advocates of wind power argue that the subsidy provided by the tax credit allows the wind industry to sustain American jobs. But they are jobs that exist only because of the subsidy. Keeping a weak technology alive that can’t make it on its own won’t create nearly as many jobs as the private sector could create if it had the kind of low-cost, reliable, clean electricity that wind power simply can’t generate.

While the cost of renewable energy has declined over the years, it is still far more expensive than conventional sources. And even the administration’s secretary of energy, Steven Chu, calls wind “a mature technology,” which should mean it is sufficiently advanced to compete in a free market without government subsidies. If wind power cannot compete on its own after 20 years without costly special privileges, it never will.

Pickens changes his mind, again

Energy investor T. Boone Pickens has changed his mind about government subsidy of energy markets — again.

Until recently Pickens has been promoting federal legislation titled H.R. 1380: New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011, or NAT GAS act. The bill provides a variety of subsidies, implemented through tax credits, to producers and users of natural gas. The goal is to promote the use of natural gas for a transportation fuel, particularly for long-haul trucks.

Now, according to reporting in Politico, Pickens said about the transition to natural gas “It’s going to happen, and you don’t have to have Washington do it, thank God.”

Later in the article Pickens is quoted as saying “You don’t have to have a tax credit; it’s going to happen.”

Before promoting subsidies for natural gas as a transportation fuel, Pickens actively promoted wind power, another form of energy production that receives government subsidy. In 2008 Pickens ordered 667 wind turbines worth $2 billion from General Electric. Now, in the Politico article, he concedes he lost a lot of money on this venture.

His plan, at that time, was to use wind power to generate electricity, and the natural gas saved would be used to power transportation. But there’s another relationship between wind power and gas, and it stems from the unreliability and variability of wind power. It’s difficult to quickly adjust the output of most power plants. But natural gas turbine plants are an exception. Kansas recently saw one of its major electric utilities complete a new natural gas power plant. The need for the plant was at least partly created by its investment in wind: A document produced by Westar titled The Greenhouse Gas Challenge noted the “Construction of the 665 MW natural gas-fired Emporia Energy Center, providing the ability to efficiently follow the variability of wind generation.” In another document announcing a request for a rate increase it stated “Our Emporia Energy Center is excellent for following the variability of wind production.”

At the time of these investments by Pickens and Westar, the price of natural gas was high. Now it is low — so low, and the prospects for future low prices certain enough — that Pickens has abandoned his wind farm projects. Even with all the subsidy granted to wind power, it’s cheaper to generate electricity with gas.

Let’s hope this is the last time Pickens develops a plan to tap the federal taxpayer to pay for his plans.

Minimum wage increase not a solution

Those who advocate for a higher minimum wage law appear to have the best interests of workers as their concern. But as is almost always the case when government intervenes into markets, the unintended consequences create more harm than good.

In the case of the federal minimum wage, we need to remember that this law — as well-intentioned as it may be — is not the solution to unemployment or raising the standard of living of workers.

The great appeal of a higher minimum wage mandated by an act of Congress is that it seems like a simple and harmless way to increase the wellbeing of low-wage workers. Those who were earning less than the new lawful wage and keep their jobs after the increase are happy. They are grateful to the lawmakers, labor leaders, newspaper editorialists, and others who pleaded for the higher minimum wage. News stories will report their good fortune.

That’s the visible effect of raising the minimum wage. But to understand the entire issue, we must look for the unseen effects. Milton Friedman explained in Capitalism and Freedom:

Minimum wage laws are about as clear a case as one can find of a measure the effects of which are precisely the opposite of those intended by the men of good will who support it. Many proponents of minimum wage laws quite properly deplore extremely low rates; they regard them as a sign of poverty; and they hope, by outlawing wage rates below some specified level, to reduce poverty. In fact, insofar as minimum wage laws have any effect at all, their effect is clearly to increase poverty. The state can legislate a minimum wage rate. It can hardly require employers to hire at that minimum all who were formerly employed at wages below the minimum. … The effect of the minimum wage is therefore to make unemployment higher than it otherwise would be.

The not-so-visible effect of the higher wage law is that demand for labor will be reduced. Those workers whose productivity — as measured by the give and take of supply and demand — lies below the new lawful wage rate are in danger of losing their jobs. The minimum wage law says if you hire someone you must pay them a certain minimum amount. The law can’t compel you to hire someone, nor can it force employers to keep workers on the payroll.

The people who lose their jobs are dispersed. A few workers here; a few there. They may not know who is to blame for their situation. Newspaper and television reporters will not seek these people, as they are largely invisible, especially so in the case of the people who are not hired because of the higher minimum wage level.

Some things employers do to compensate for higher labor costs include these:

  • Reduce non-wage benefits such as health insurance.
  • Eliminate overtime hours that many employees rely on.
  • Substitute machines for labor. We might see more self-service checkout lanes at supermarkets and more use of automated telephone response systems, for example.
  • Use illegal labor. Examples include paying employees under the table, or requiring work off-the-clock.
  • Some employers may be more willing to bear the risks of using undocumented workers who can’t complain that they aren’t being paid the minimum wage.
  • Some employers may decide that the risks and hassles of being in business aren’t worth it anymore, and will close shop.

Solution to low wages

If we are truly concerned about the plight of low-wage and low-skilled workers we can face some realities and deal with them openly. The primary reality is that some people are not able to produce output that our economy values highly. These workers are not very productive. Passing a law that requires employers to pay them more doesn’t change the fact that their productivity is low. But there are ways to increase productivity.

One way to increase workers’ productivity is through education. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that our public education system is not producing graduates with the skills needed for well-paying jobs. But this is a problem that can be fixed.

Another way to increase wages is to encourage more capital investment. But capital is a dirty word to liberals, as it conjures up images of rich people earning income from the labors of others. But as the economist Walter E. Williams says, ask yourself this question: who earns the higher wage: a man digging a ditch with a shovel, or a man digging a ditch using a power backhoe? The difference between the two is that the man using the backhoe is more productive, although the worker using the shovel is undoubtedly working harder. But it is productivity, not work effort, that is valued. That productivity is provided by capital — the savings that someone accumulated (instead of spending on immediate consumption or taxes) and invested in a way that increased the output of workers and our economy.

These savers and investors are not necessarily wealthy people. Anyone who defers current consumption in order to save and invest — no matter how small the amount — provides capital to industry.

Education and capital accumulation are the two best ways to increase the productivity and the wages of workers. Ironically, the people who are most vocal about raising wages through legislative fiat are also usually opposed to meaningful education reform and school choice, insisting on more resources being poured into the present system. They also usually support higher taxes on both individuals and business, which makes it harder to accumulate capital. These people and organizations should examine the effects of the policies they promote, as they are not in alignment with their stated goals.

Minimum wage as competitive weapon

We also need to examine the motivations of those calling for a higher minimum wage. Sometimes they see a way gain a competitive advantage.

In 2005 Walmart came out in favor of raising the national minimum wage. Providing an example of how regulation is pitched as needed for the common good, Walmart’s CEO said that he was concerned for the plight of working families, and that he thought the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour was too low. If Walmart — a company the political left loves to hate as much as any other — can be in favor of increased regulation of the workplace, can regulation be a good thing? Had Walmart discovered the joys of big government?

The answer is yes. Walmart discovered a way of using government regulation as a competitive weapon. This is often the motivation for business support of regulation. In the case of Walmart, it was already paying its employees well over the current minimum wage. At the time, some sources thought that the minimum wage could be raised as much as 50 percent and not cause Walmart any additional cost — its employees already made that much.

But its competitors didn’t pay wages that high. If the minimum wage rose very much, these competitors to Walmart would be forced to increase their wages. Their costs would rise. Their ability to compete with Walmart would be harmed.

In short, Walmart supported government regulation in the form of a higher minimum wage as a way to impose higher costs on its competitors. It found a way to compete outside the marketplace. And it did it while appearing noble.