Should we make it politically profitable for policymakers to do the right thing

Should we make it politically profitable for policymakers to do the right thing, or should we make it less profitable for policymakers to do anything?

Abigail Hall, writing a pair of posts for the Independent Institute blog The Beacon, urges liberty-minded people not to get too excited about electing the “right people.” (First post, second) The focus of her attention are Rand Paul supporters, but her argument is more general. Drawing on ideas of F.A. Hayek and James Buchanan, she notes that political actors are people like anyone else:

They respond to the incentives they face. These incentives are determined by the institutional context in which they operate. The incentives facing politicians do not necessarily align with those of the population as a whole. As a result, we wind up with pork barrel spending and policies that benefit special interests at the expense of the average American taxpayer.

She concludes by recommending engaging with ideas rather than politics. I thought her message lined up with that in a popular Milton Friedman quote, but Hall’s goal is more ambitious. Here is Friedman:

I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.

Hall, rather than trying to get politicians to do the right thing, wants to cut the power of politicians to do any thing.

How? She admits she does not know, but says, “we cannot rely on the current system to be the genesis of these changes” and “our battleground is one of ideas, not politics.”

Success in the world of ideas–what does it look like?

Hall is after more than nodding agreement among the tenured faculty, so the question arises: what would success in the world of ideas look like?

I think it looks like the growth of so-called “lifestyle libertarians” (a derisive term coined by book-based libertarians for the hemp-oil loving, rainbow wearing, do-your-own-thing kids in campus clubs who won’t read anything written before Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard). I think it looks like Glenn Beck donning glasses and calling himself libertarian, even if …. It could even include Donald Trump speaking at a freedom festival in Las Vegas (just kidding, that could never ever ever ever happendoh!). I think progress in the world of ideas means a thousand badly argued articles in opposition to libertarianism and perhaps as many bad articles in support. I think it means politicians claiming to fight for liberty, even if they are not consistent, because they think the claim buys support.

Success in the world of ideas would, unavoidably, produce millions of liberty-supporters who can only defend their views badly. Not everyone persuaded of liberty will refine their beliefs by exploring Rothbard or Friedman (or Bastiat or Spooner or Wilder Lane). Success in the world of ideas will result in voters more likely to support politicians who say libertarian-ish things. Further success will result in voters more discerning in their support for politicians who say libertarian-ish things.

Hall is right to warn that institutions matter, and political institutions by their nature tend to disappoint. Some of the best work in political economy gives us good reason to think so. But part of what success in the world of ideas looks like is an uptake of the ideas among politicians and campaigns and voters. It is not clear that progress requires squelching these political outgrowths.

Should we make it politically profitable for policymakers to do the right thing, or should we make it less profitable for policymakers to do anything? We do not need a once-for-all answer — the returns are likely positive for efforts on both margins.

Note: Also see David Henderson’s “Abigail Hall’s Case Against Supporting Politicians” at EconLog.

DOT’s airline price gouging investigation and a political economy-based prediction

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had launched an investigation into possible “unfair practices (e.g., price gouging) affecting air travel during the period of time that Amtrak service along the Northeast Corridor was delayed or suspended as a result of the May 12th derailment.” Five airlines received letters from the agency seeking information on prices for travel between airports most affected by the derailment. CBS News in New York had the story, as did many other media outlets.

In the statement released by the DOT Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, “The idea that any business would seek to take advantage of stranded rail passengers in the wake of such a tragic event is unacceptable. This Department takes all allegations of airline price-gouging seriously, and we will pursue a thorough investigation of these consumer complaints.” The DOT was responding to consumer complaints and a letter from U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT).

Pure political theater.

The law DOT cites, 49 US Code § 41712, allows the department to investigate whether an airline “has been or is engaged in an unfair or deceptive practice or an unfair method of competition in air transportation or the sale of air transportation.” In the event the department finds price gouging, the sole remedy present in the law is to order the airlines to stop. Given that rail travel was restored after five days, prices have already returned to normal. No meaningful remedy is possible…

…unless DOT wants to go big: rather than finding the prices constituted unfair practices, the DOT could conclude that the airlines’ computerized pricing algorithms constitute unfair practices and order airlines to cease employing them. The airlines’ dynamic pricing systems are not popular with consumers, so they might make an appealing political target. Such a response would be meaningful, in that it would impose significant costs on airlines to reform their systems, but is such a conclusion likely?

The word “unfair” is not defined in the law; the DOT said it relies upon the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Policy Statement on Unfairness for a working definition. The policy statement provided a three factor approach to fairness. considering: (1) consumer injury, (2) violation of public policy, and (3) unethical or unscrupulous conduct. In practice the FTC relies only on the first two factors.

Under the policy, apparent consumer injury is judged against the commercial benefits associated with the trade practice. While dynamic pricing is unpopular with consumers, it is profitable for airlines. In addition, it likely produces prices and service quality that are, on average, better for consumers than otherwise. A balancing of apparent harms and apparent benefits should tilt in favor of dynamic pricing.

Here is my political economy-based prediction:

After a month or two the DOT will report finding that airline prices did jump suddenly after the derailment as demand for air travel jumped up. They will observe that initial price spikes resulted from airlines’ computerized pricing mechanisms and did not reflect an intent to “take advantage of stranded passengers in the wake of such a tragic event.” They will note that airlines responded by adding flights and pressing larger aircraft into service. The report will conclude temporary price spikes reflected the ordinary workings of supply and demand under short-lived extraordinary circumstances. No finding of unfair practices will result, and no trade practices will be condemned.

While the announcement of the investigation produced a lot of press, the release of the report will produce little press. A finding of “ordinary workings of supply and demand” is not newsworthy.

What is more, the DOT already knows this answer. It already believes there is nothing to find in the data it is requesting. Still, a Senator wrote a letter — by the way Senator Murphy sits on the Senate subcommittee that oversees the DOT budget — and the DOT responded.

The Senator himself, too, either already knows this answer or simply has not thought too hard about it. But why should he think about a future no-news report? The announcement of the investigation and the press that the announcement garnered, that was the goal. The rest is noise.

[Thanks to Tom Konrad for bringing the story to my attention.]

You should probably raise prices a bit during emergencies

At the Master Resource blog today: “In Defense of Price ‘Gouging’ (lines and shortages are uneconomic, discriminatory).”

In the essay I emphasize the unintended bias that results when consumer demand surges and supplies are tight, as for example when winter storm forecasts lead consumers to rush to the grocery store for bread and milk. Because retailers rarely raise prices in such situations, shortages are the predictable result. The burden of those shortages isn’t spread randomly, however, but rather tends to fall more heavily on certain segments of the population.

When emergencies happen (or are first forecasted) some consumers are readily able to rush to the store while other consumers are not so lucky. The early bird gets the bread and milk and eggs, the late arrival finds little or nothing available….

Households with … “high opportunity costs of shopping,” for example those households with infants or with both parents working full time, were more likely to miss out on the opportunity to buy foods before they ran out. It is easy to see that elderly and mobility-impaired consumers, too, would be more likely to be shut out by any sudden rush of consumers to the store after a disaster.

Higher prices would discourage over-buying and help ensure that useful consumer goods get distributed to more households, not just the households best able to rush to the store.

We can debate how significant the effect is, and I do not argue that raising prices solves all interesting problems, but a modest increase in consumer prices would likely be an improvement.

How about grocery stores imposing a 5 percent storm surcharge that goes to charity, with an ability to opt out? Maybe a sign next to the bread shelves saying “Help those most hurt by the storm: We recommend you donate 25 cents to [name of charity] for every loaf of bread you buy. Our checkout staff will be happy to help you with your donation!”

While I have targeted many complaints at anti-price gouging laws here at Knowledge Problem, in the Master Resource post I broaden my focus a bit to encompass the consumer sentiment against price increases during emergencies. We need a social change to enable markets to work as best they can in such situations. More effective markets aid by reducing the scope of the problems to be addressed by charitable work (as Dwight Lee argues in his essay in Regulation magazine – see the related discussion and link in the Master Resource post).

The quoted part above in part relies on research done on consumer purchases in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011:  Naohito Abe, Chiaki Moriguchi, and Noriko Inakura, “The Effects of Natural Disasters on Prices and Purchasing Behaviors: The Case of Great East Japan Earthquake.” DP14-1, RCESR Discussion Paper Series, September 2014.

When does state utility regulation distort costs?

I suspect the simplest answer to the title question is “always.” Maybe the answer depends on your definition of “distort,” but both the intended and generally expected consequences of state utility rate regulation has always been to push costs to be something other than what would naturally emerge in the absence of rate regulation.

More substantive, though, is the analysis provided in Steve Cicala’s article in the January 2015 American Economic Review, “When Does Regulation Distort Costs? Lessons from Fuel Procurement in US Electricity Generation.” (here is an earlier ungated version of the paper.)

Here is a summary from the University of Chicago press release:

A study in the latest issue of the American Economic Review used recent state regulatory changes in electricity markets as a laboratory to evaluate which factors can contribute to a regulation causing a bigger mess than the problem it was meant to fix….

Cicala used data on almost $1 trillion worth of fuel deliveries to power plants to look at what happens when a power plant becomes deregulated. He found that the deregulated plants combined save about $1 billion a year compared to those that remained regulated. This is because a lack of transparency, political influence and poorly designed reimbursement rates led the regulated plants to pursue inefficient strategies when purchasing coal.

The $1 billion that deregulated plants save stems from paying about 12 percent less for their coal because they shop around for the best prices. Regulated plants have no incentive to shop around because their profits do not depend on how much they pay for fuel. They also are looked upon more favorably by regulators if they purchase from mines within their state, even if those mines don’t sell the cheapest coal. To make matters worse, regulators have a difficult time figuring out if they are being overcharged because coal is typically purchased through confidential contracts.

Although power plants that burned natural gas were subject to the exact same regulations as the coal-fired plants, there was no drop in the price paid for gas after deregulation. Cicala attributed the difference to the fact that natural gas is sold on a transparent, open market. This prevents political influences from sneaking through and allows regulators to know when plants are paying too much.

What’s different about the buying strategy of deregulated coal plant operators? Cicala dove deep into two decades of detailed, restricted-access procurement data to answer this question. First, he found that deregulated plants switch to cheaper, low-sulfur coal. This not only saves them money, but also allows them to comply with environmental regulations. On the other hand, regulated plants often comply with regulations by installing expensive “scrubber” technology, which allows them to make money from the capital improvements.

“It’s ironic to hear supporters of Eastern coal complain about ‘regulation’: they’re losing business from the deregulated plants,” said Cicala, a scholar at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Deregulated plants also increase purchases from out-of-state mines by about 25 percent. As mentioned, regulated plants are looked upon more favorably if they buy from in-state mines. Finally, deregulated plants purchase their coal from more productive mines (coal seams are thicker and closer to the surface) that require about 25 percent less labor to extract from the ground and that pay 5 percent higher wages.

“Recognizing that there are failures in financial markets, health care markets, energy markets, etc., it’s critical to know what makes for ‘bad’ regulations when designing new ones to avoid making the problem worse,” Cicala said. [Emphasis added.]

The spin on wind, or, an example of bullshit in the field of energy policy

The Wall Street Journal recently opined against President Obama’s nominee for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman, Norman Bay, and in the process took a modest swipe at subsidies for wind energy.

The context here is Bay’s action while leading FERC’s enforcement division, and in particular his prosecution of electric power market participants who manage to run afoul of FERC’s vague definition for market manipulation even though their trading behavior complied with all laws, regulations, and market rules.

So here the WSJ‘s editorial board pokes a little at subsidized wind in the process of making a point about reckless prosecutions:

As a thought experiment, consider the production tax credit for wind energy. In certain places at certain times, the subsidy is lucrative enough that wind generators make bids at negative prices: Instead of selling their product, they pay the market to drive prices below zero or “buy” electricity that would otherwise go unsold to qualify for the credit.

That strategy harms unsubsidized energy sources, distorts competition and may be an offense against taxpayers. But it isn’t a crime in the conventional legal sense because wind outfits are merely exploiting the subsidy in the open. The rational solution would be to end the subsidies that create negative bids, not to indict the wind farms. But for Mr. Bay, the same logic doesn’t apply to FERC.

The first quoted paragraph seems descriptive of reality and doesn’t cast wind energy in any negative light. The second quoted paragraph suggests the subsidy harms unsubsidized competitors, also plainly true, and that it “distorts competition” and “may be an offense against taxpayers.” These last two characterizations also strike me as fair descriptions of current public policy, and perhaps as mildly negative in tone.

Of course folks at the wind industry’s lobby shop are eager to challenge any little perceived slight, so the AWEA’s Michael Goggin sent a letter to the editor:

Your editorial “Electric Prosecutor Acid Test” (May 19) ignores wind energy’s real consumer benefits by mentioning the red herring of negative electricity prices. Negative prices are extremely rare and are usually highly localized in remote areas where they have little to no impact on other power plants, are caused by inflexible nuclear power plants much of the time, and are being eliminated as long-needed grid upgrades are completed.

Wind energy’s real impact is saving consumers money by displacing more expensive forms of energy, which is precisely why utilities bought wind in the first place. This impact is entirely market-driven, occurs with or without the tax credit, and applies to all low-fuel-cost sources of energy, including nuclear.

The tax relief provided to wind energy more than pays for itself by enabling economic development that generates additional tax revenue and represents a small fraction of the cumulative incentives given to other energy sources.

Michael Goggin
American Wind Energy Association
Washington, DC

Let’s just say I’ll believe the “impact is entirely market-driven” when someone produces a convincing study that shows the exact same wind energy capacity build-out would have happened over the last 20 years in the absence of the U.S. federal Production Tax Credit and state renewable energy purchase mandates. Without the tax credit, the wind energy industry likely would be (I’m guessing) less than one-tenth of its current size and without a big tax credit wouldn’t be the target of much public policy debate.

Of course, without much public policy debate, the wind energy industry wouldn’t need to hire so many lobbyists. Hence the AWEA’s urge to jump on any perceived slight, stir the pot, and keep debate going.

MORE on the lobbying against the Bay nomination. See also this WSJ op-ed.


A relatively thoughful view of libertarianism from a progressive-liberal perspective

Salon has published a lot of nonsense on libertarianism (e.g., anything by Michael Lind on the topic). So it was surprising, yesterday, to find that Kim Messick’s Salon essay on libertarianism was relatively thoughtful. No perfect, by any means, just better than most progressive-liberal attempts at criticizing libertarianism. The author at least gets basic points right and would surely score higher than most Salon writers on the relevant ideological Turing test (admittedly a low standard).

Just don’t take the title too seriously (“Libertarians’ reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure”). At Alternet the story is reproduced under the similarly silly title “How Libertarianism Would Actually Curtail Human Freedom.” Article writers often don’t choose their titles, editors do, so just skip ahead for the substance (you’ll have to similarly skim past the Tea Party and Republican chatter at the beginning and ignore the favorable linking to Lind’s Salon work). Once you skip ahead, you’ll find a reasonable journalistic effort to engage with and challenge an overly atomistic view of libertarianism.

Messick misses some things. He is apparently unfamiliar with left libertarianism (for example, the Center for a Stateless Society) or many of the writers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians; he thinks a libertarian free market would leave many people in soul-killing poverty; and at times his discussion confuses society with government. But the core of his challenge to (at least hard-core individualistic) depictions of libertarian principles makes useful work of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s writings on atomism.

In his essay “Atomism,” Taylor points out that we “only develop [our] characteristically human capacities in society” — including our capacity for choice. “Living in a society,” Taylor goes on, “is a necessary condition of the development of rationality … or of becoming a moral agent in the full sense of the term … or of becoming a fully responsible, autonomous being.” Given this, those who value personal autonomy must also affirm the value of its social sources: “[I]f we assert the right to one’s own independent moral convictions, we cannot… claim that we are not under any obligation ‘by nature’ to belong to and sustain a society of the relevant type”:

“[T]he free individual or autonomous moral agent can only achieve and maintain his identity in a certain type of culture… But these… do not come into existence spontaneously each successive instant. They are carried on in institutions and associations which require stability and continuity and frequently also support from the community as a whole… The crucial point here is this: since the free individual can only maintain his identity within a society/culture of a certain kind, he has to be concerned about the shape of this society/culture as a whole. He cannot… be concerned purely with his individual choices and the associations formed from such choices”.

Taylor shows us how to link the liberal concept of agency — the ideal of personal autonomy — with normative conclusions about what people should value. The connective tissue is the pattern of external resources on which our capacity for choice depends: the institutions, practices, and associations within which we develop and cultivate this capacity. For Taylor, it makes no sense to affirm the value of autonomy while denigrating (or simply ignoring) the social goods without which autonomy is impossible. Like communitarians, he thinks we should affirm these goods and not just our purely personal ends. Unlike them, he does not regard this as grounds for a wholesale rejection of liberal autonomy. Quite the contrary — he argues for a social element in ethical life precisely because he values autonomy and wants to sustain the cultural conditions upon which it rests.

On this I think Taylor (and by extension Messick) raises good points about the connections between society, moral development, and individual freedom. I just don’t think the only or even the best response to these points is to reject libertarian political philosophy. Messick sums up the above with, “The obvious inference is that we should see progressive liberalism as a kind of middle ground between communitarianism on the one hand and libertarianism on the other. It acknowledges the social dimensions of ethical life but accepts personal autonomy as a genuine ideal.”

But acknowledging “the social dimensions of ethical life” and “accepting personal autonomy as a genuine ideal” is exactly the common ground I want to occupy as a libertarian. The libertarian minded thinkers I like tend to emphasize the connection between increasing liberty and a flourishing society.

Messick may be surprised to learn there is active debate among libertarians on these issues of politics, markets, and social relations. Some libertarians insist non-aggression is the only necessary principle, while others suggest the broader social order is also important. In the context of these discussions, Messick’s outsider perspective on libertarianism, while imperfect, is good enough to be of some value to libertarians.

Decarbonization Now? (No, not yet.)

Paul Krugman’s recent opinion column in the New York Times ran under the headline, “Salvation Gets Cheap.” At first I though Krugman was making a snarky comment on ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s claim that the ex-mayor’s work on restricting access to guns, and efforts on obesity and smoking would ensure a place in heaven. But no, Krugman is opining that technology is providing an easy way forward on climate change:

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

The “Revolution Now” report, which was linked in Krugman’s column online, is surprisingly weak sauce. The U.S. Department of Energy report (your tax dollars at work) purports to describe “four technology revolutions that are here today” and “have achieved dramatic reductions in cost” and “a surge in consumer, industrial and commercial deployment” in the last five years. The four “revolutions” are onshore wind power, polysilicon photovoltaic modules, LED lighting, and electric vehicles.

Each “revolution” gets a two-page summary and a colorful chart showing declining costs and rising use. The summaries are footnoted, just like real research, and studded with more factoids than the front page of USA Today. Here’s a fun fact: the ratio of empirical claims to footnotes in the article’s two pages on wind power is 4-to-1.

You can get a sense of the quality of the report by considering the claims strung together on electric vehicles: First it is reported “more and more drivers are abandoning the gas pump for the affordability and convenience of in-home electric charging,” then that 50,000 EVs were purchased in 2012 and the rate of purchase doubled in early 2013. Next we are told “to maintain this momentum the most critical area for cost reduction is batteries.” A paragraph later the report said, “In many senses, EVs are already competitive with traditional cars.” In the final paragraph, however, a sober note: it will take “further progress on reducing the cost of EV batteries” to make “these benefits available to a larger audience.”

The sober note referenced a DOE battery cost target of $125/kwh by 2022, at which point the DOE expects ownership costs for a EV will be similar to a standard vehicle. A glance back at the chart suggests current battery costs nearer five times that level, leaving at least this reader wondering in which sense “EVs are already competitive with traditional cars” and part of the “technology revolutions that are here today.”

The revolution is here today! Or maybe in 2022!! Or maybe whenever “further progress” is made!!!

Overall the report is more enthusiasm than analysis, and not sufficient to justify changing beliefs on the cost of decarbonizing energy supplies.