Looking for renewable policy certainty in all the wrong places

From EnergyWire comes the headline, “In Missouri, industry wants off the ‘solar coaster’.” (link here via Midwest Energy News).

A utility rebate program authorized by voters in 2008 is making Missouri into a solar leader in the Midwest. But $175 million set aside to subsidize solar installations is [nearly] fully subscribed … and the same small businesses that scrambled to add workers last year to help meet surging demand are facing layoffs….

Heidi Schoen, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, said the industry, which has generated thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in new taxes for the state, is just looking for certainty.

“We want off the solar coaster,” she said. “We don’t want to be in this boom-and-bust situation.”

It is a patently false claim.

If they wanted off of the boom-and-bust policy ‘solar coaster,’ they’d get off. They could go do unsubsidized solar installations for example, or if (when?) that proves unprofitable get work doing something else. By their actions they signal that they prefer the booms-and-busts that come with reliance on politicians for favors.

ICLE letter to Gov. Christie opposing direct vehicle distribution ban: Over 70 economists and law professors

Geoff Manne of the International Center for Law and Economics has spearheaded a detailed, thorough, analytical letter to New Jersey Governor Christie examining the state’s ban on direct vehicle distribution and why it is bad for consumers. Geoff summarizes the argument in a post today at Truth on the Market:

Earlier this month New Jersey became the most recent (but likely not the last) state to ban direct sales of automobiles. Although the rule nominally applies more broadly, it is directly aimed at keeping Tesla Motors (or at least its business model) out of New Jersey. Automobile dealers have offered several arguments why the rule is in the public interest, but a little basic economics reveals that these arguments are meritless.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics sent an open letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, urging reconsideration of the regulation and explaining why the rule is unjustified — except as rent-seeking protectionism by independent auto dealers.

The letter, which was principally written by University of Michigan law professor, Dan Crane, and based in large part on his blog posts here at Truth on the Market (see here and here), was signed by more than 70 economists and law professors.

I am one of the signatories on the letter, because I believe the analysis is sound, the decision will harm consumers, and the law is motivated by protecting incumbent interests.

I encourage you to read the analysis in the letter in its entirety. Note that although the catalyst of this letter is Tesla, this law is sufficiently general to ban any direct distribution of vehicles, and thus will continue to stifle competition in an industry that has been benefiting from incumbent legal protection for several decades.

Information technology has reduced the transaction costs that previously made vehicle transactions too costly relative to local transactions between consumers and dealers. Statutes and regulations protecting those incumbents foreclose potential consumer benefits, and thus do the opposite of the purported “consumer protection” that is the stated goal of the legislation.

See also comments from Loyola law professor (and fellow runner and Chicagoan!) Matthew Sag.

Someone please explain the American Wind Energy Association’s funky electricity price arithmetic

About a month ago the American Wind Energy Association blogged: “Fact Check: New Evidence Rebuts Heartland’s Bogus RPS Claims.” I’m scratching my head a bit trying to understand their so-called facts. The big claim from AWEA:

The eleven states that produce more than seven percent of their electricity from wind energy have seen their electricity prices fall 0.37 percent over the last five years, while all other states have seen their electricity prices rise by 7.79 percent.

The blog post mentions DOE data, and the post links to a report the AWEA assembled titled “Wind Power’s Consumer Benefits” which cites U.S. EIA data on “Average Retail Price of Electricity to Ultimate Customers” (find the data here). The blog doesn’t explain their method and the report is only barely more helpful in that regard.

The AWEA report describes the price suppressing “merit order” effect of subsidized/low marginal cost wind energy, but that is a wholesale price phenomena that doesn’t include various other utility compliance costs, and anyway the AWEA is making claims about end consumer benefits from lower retail prices. The merit order effect only matters to consumers if consumers end up paying lower retail prices.

So I downloaded data from the EIA site and tried to calculate the retail percent change in price for every state over the last five years, then compared the eleven states that AWEA said produce more than seven percent of their electricity from wind energy to the remaining states and DC.

By my simple average, prices in the 11 “wind states” were about 18.8 percent higher in December 2013 than they were in December 2008; prices in the 39 other states and DC were about 5.7 percent higher in December 2013 than they were in December 2008. Now maybe AWEA is doing a weighted average by kwh sold or something different than my straightforward calculation, but they don’t explain it and I can’t reproduce it.

Can you?

The price data from December 2008 and December 2013 for the eleven “wind states” and “Avg-All Others” are:

State Dec-08 Dec-13 Percent change
Iowa          7.10          7.77 9.4%
Kansas          7.01          9.19 31.1%
Minnesota          7.66          9.27 21.0%
North Dakota          6.35          8.03 26.5%
South Dakota          6.93          8.57 23.7%
Oklahoma          6.55          7.14 9.0%
Texas        10.85          8.77 -19.2%
Colorado          8.01          9.48 18.4%
Idaho          5.97          7.91 32.5%
Wyoming          5.68          7.71 35.7%
Oregon          7.24          8.61 18.9%
Avg-All Others        10.60        11.19 5.7%
* Prices are cents/kwh

I can’t help but notice that only one of the 11 wind states (Texas) saw a decline in prices over the time period, and the other 10 wind states actually saw prices increase from December 2008 to December 2009 faster than the overall average of the other states.

So what kind of funky AWEA arithmetic turns (mostly) larger retail price increases in the 11 states into a big consumer benefit?

NOTE: By the way, a sophisticated attempt to address the questions of wind power’s consumer benefits-if any on net-would look at a lot more information than simple average retail rates by states. I was trying to engage the debate on the level presented and even at this simple level of analysis I can’t tell how they got their numbers.

Discrimination in West Virginia price gouging case?

Are West Virginia “outsiders” more likely to be accused of price gouging?

From the March 8, 2014, Charleston Gazette, “Morrisey accused of discrimination in price gouging response“:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. –A Putnam County storeowner accused of price gouging bottled water during the water crisis says Attorney General Patrick Morrisey discriminated against him because he is Lebanese, questioned him unethically and illegally leaked the charge to the media before informing him of it.

On Feb. 14, Morrisey filed suit in Putnam Circuit Court alleging that Achraf Assi’s convenience stores, Hurricane-based Mid Valley Mart LLC, unfairly raised the price of Tyler Mountain Spring Water from $1.59 a gallon to $3.39 a gallon the day after the Jan. 9 chemical leak that contaminated the region’s drinking water.

Morrisey alleged that Assi, who owns the two stores that allegedly sold water at inflated prices, kept the prices higher for a week following the chemical leak.

In this news report the West Virginia Attorney General refers to alleged price gougers as “bad apples.”

The attorney general’s office reported over 150 calls concerning prices during the water emergency and documented 74 cases of increased prices on water and other goods. As of late February, the AG’s office reported issuing six subpoenas and 15 cease and desist letters. Only one price gouging case has been filed subsequent to the water emergency.

So far as I am aware, this is the first time I’ve seen claimed that price gouging laws have been implemented in a discriminatory fashion.

In 2012 I suggested the possibility that price gouging laws could be applied in discriminatory fashion (here and here). In brief, my claim was (1) the laws typically grant some discretion to the state, and any discretion exercised was unlikely to favor “outsider” groups; and (2) enforcement is almost always triggered by consumer complaint and so gives any consumer bias a role in anti-price gouging law enforcement. I’ve also speculated that “outsider” merchants may be more likely to raise prices in response to emergencies, but know of no research on that possibility.

Rent-seeking diary: State dealer franchise laws and Tesla

By now you’ve probably heard that last week the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission passed a rule stipulating that automobile sales in the state cannot be direct-to-consumer, and must instead take place via dealer franchises. Tesla Motors was the clear target of this regulation, with its innovative electric vehicles and direct-to-consumer sales model. New Jersey is not the first state in which this regulatory tangle is occurring; last summer Tesla ran into dealer franchise law hurdles in Virginia and New York, as I discussed here in July.

The SF Gate blog post above notes:

Tesla said the administration had “gone back on its word,” claiming two top Christie aides had agreed not to move forward with the regulation. …

But a Christie spokesman rejected the accusations of a double-cross. The regulation, he said, won’t prevent Tesla from seeking legislation to allow direct sales in New Jersey.

Note that the political establishment response is to engage with the political process to get legislation passed to allow direct sales. What would such engagement entail? Will it entail the kind of crony relationships that have led to the entanglement of so many businesses and politicians in the past — will Tesla have to find its own politicians to fund in the hopes of a favorable legislative outcome? If so, that will vindicate my sad statement last July:

When innovative and environmentally correct meets the crony corporatism of existing legislation, is the entrenched incumbent dealer industry sufficiently politically powerful to succeed in retaining their enabling legislation that raises their new rival’s costs?

In New Jersey, it appears that the answer is yes, at least for now, as established car dealers cling to their old business model and hope to avoid being disintermediated. Tesla has thus far avoided the crony trap, and has instead focused on relabeling their New Jersey showrooms as “galleries” while encouraging customers to purchase the vehicle online. Will that legalistic sleight of hand suffice to enable an end-run around status-quo-protecting obstacles?

Alex Tabarrok discusses the Tesla-New Jersey case today, and analyzes it very usefully with a brief history of the evolution of state dealer franchise laws and how they served as a Coasean solution to an incentive problem:

Franchising rules evolved in Coasean fashion so that manufacturers could not expropriate dealers and dealers could not expropriate manufacturers. To encourage dealers to invest in a knowledgeable sales and repair staff, for example, manufactures promised dealers exclusive franchise (i.e. they would not license a competitor next door). But with exclusive franchises dealers would have an incentive to take advantage of their monopoly power and increase profits by selling fewer units at higher profits. Selling fewer units, however, works to the detriment of the manufacturer and the public (aka the double marginalization problem (video)). Thus the manufactures required dealers buy and sell a minimum quantity of cars, so-called quantity forcing. Selling more units is exactly what we want a monopoly to do, so these restrictions benefited manufactures and consumers.

Here Alex’s account dovetails with the history that Elon Musk provided in his open letter to the people of New Jersey on Friday:

Many decades ago, the incumbent auto manufacturers sold franchises to generate capital and gain a salesforce. The franchisees then further invested a lot of their money and time in building up the dealerships. That’s a fair deal and it should not be broken. However, some of the big auto companies later engaged in pressure tactics to get the franchisees to sell their dealerships back at a low price. The franchisees rightly sought protection from their state legislatures, which resulted in the laws on the books today throughout the United States (these laws are not present anywhere else in the world).

Musk’s letter is well worth reading in its entirety, as an eloquent and well-argued statement about regulatory and legislative entry barriers that enable incumbent firms to raise the costs of their rivals. He also provides a thoughtful and economically sophisticated (and accurate, I think) explanation for why they don’t want to sell Tesla vehicles through established dealers.

Here Alex adds another political economy detail of the economic leverage of the franchise dealers in the states — they provided jobs and their sales generated a large share of a state’s sales tax revenue, so politicians found it in their interest to shore up the state-level dealer franchise laws to protect the dealers. Thus a set of laws that initially benefitted both producers and consumers has evolved into industry-protecting regulation.

One other theme I’ve noted in the discussion of Tesla’s reaction to New Jersey cronyism is to criticize Tesla for the benefits it derives from government protection. Tesla’s business intersects with government programs in three areas: (1) taking a DOE-guaranteed loan of $465 million during the financial crisis, which has been paid back in full (and was smaller than the multi-billion-dollar loans to the Big Three); (2) the federal $7,500 income tax credit to individuals purchasing electric vehicles, from which all manufacturers of electric vehicles benefit and which is probably not decisive at the margin for Tesla’s high-income target customers; (3) revenue arising from the existence of a regulation-generated market for vehicle emission credits (ZEV) credits in California, in which Toyota and Nissan also sell ZEV credits to GM and Chrysler. I expect that being practical and not leaving money on the table is a sufficient motive to induce Tesla’s management to engage in those programs. But these benefits from government social engineering and regulation differ in kind from the kind of industry-protecting regulatory cronyism evident in New Jersey (and Texas, and other states forbidding direct-to-consumer car sales).

Take a gamble on “The Bet”: It is a balanced history of the Simon-Ehrlich conflict on population and scarcity

Paul Sabin, “The Bet,” Yale University Press, 2013.

Paul Sabin’s The Bet offers perhaps the best-researched, best-written and most thorough account of the history and meaning of the famous 1980 bet between population pessimist Paul Ehrlich and resource optimist Julian Simon. Sabin is unceasingly fair in his treatment of the antagonists, a tough trick to pull off when working with such charged material.

In fact I’d say Sabin is too fair to Ehrlich, who predicted famine and social collapse in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s and recommended policies that (inadvertently / unintentionally / because he didn’t know better) would have helped cause those calamities.

The book is recommended if you are interested in population, natural resources, or environmental policy.

No population bomb

From the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Erle C. Ellis explains, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem“:

MANY scientists believe that by transforming the earth’s natural landscapes, we are undermining the very life support systems that sustain us. Like bacteria in a petri dish, our exploding numbers are reaching the limits of a finite planet, with dire consequences. Disaster looms as humans exceed the earth’s natural carrying capacity. Clearly, this could not be sustainable.

This is nonsense. Even today, I hear some of my scientific colleagues repeat these and similar claims — often unchallenged. And once, I too believed them. Yet these claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.

All in all it seems a little better grounded than Paul Ehrlich’s approach in 1968, flatly declaring, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon….” Unfortunately for Professor Ehrlich, hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death in the 1970s. His neo-Malthusian pessimism was popular in the Carter administration, but even Carter’s policies at the end tilted a bit more toward markets and optimism and away from bureaucracy and pessimism.

Politicized implementation of U.S. oil import quotas, 1959-1973

The oil import quota system in place from 1959 to 1973 restricted imports to an amount equal to the difference between the federal government’s estimate of domestic oil demand and the estimate of domestic oil supply. But, of course, nothing in industry-protection policy can be easy, so the policy contained a number of adjustments and exclusions.

Chief among exclusion was the “overland exemption” for imports from Canada and Mexico. Hilarity ensues.

120. There is an overland “exemption” for imports from Canada and Mexico. The overland exemption has been construed to include imports from Mexico which are transported by tanker to Brownsville, Texas, where they are entered in bond, transferred to trucks which cross the Mexican border, then re-enter the United States where they are released from bond and are said to have entered by overland means. The oil is reloaded aboard tankers for shipment by sea to the U.S. East Coast. On the other hand, the exemption has not been extended to shipments from Canada across the Great Lakes or to rail shipments from Canada to Ketchikan in Southern Alaska because of a short inland waterway crossing by rail car ferry. The “overland exemption” for both Canadian and Mexican imports are further limited quantitatively by intergovernmental agreements.

From Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control, The Oil Import Question, (1970), at pp. 9-10.

 

Public Choice Theory: Skwire’s First Law

Some time last spring, my friend and occasional KP contributor Sarah Skwire formulated on Facebook what’s now dubbed “Skwire’s First Law”, and we’ve been using it, kicking its tires, and discussing it all summer. In a timely manner (given what we’ve learned this summer about widespread, unwarranted government surveillance and the impending likelihood that yet another president will engage in yet another international military action without Congressional authorization), Sarah has formalized and expanded upon Skwire’s First Law in a Bleeding Heart Libertarians post today:

Accidentally invented by me on Facebook a while back, named by my co-blogger Steve Horwitz, and picked up–to my great diversion–by a crew of Facebook friends, Skwire’s law is simply stated thusly:

Politicians are asshats.

I’m driven to write a bit about Skwire’s First Law today because, like every other day, politicians are being asshats. And I want to talk about how Skwire’s law—though simply expressed—is not merely a sigh of exasperation, a political version of “boys will be boys.” It’s a manifesto condensed into three words.

Saying that politicians are asshats means that you acknowledge the deep truths of public choice theory. It means that even if the occasional politician supports a policy you like or gives a speech you admire, you know enough not to turn him or her into a hero. We can debate, as my friends and I have on Facebook, whether asshats become politicians or politicians become asshats. I don’t think that debate much matters, because I think both parts of it are true. Politics is a machine that turns good people and good ideas into bad ones, and turns bad people and bad ideas into worse ones. Politics is a system that attracts not only people who want to help, but people who want to control. And once those people—good or bad, helpful or controlling—are in the system, they use it to further their ends.

Note in particular the last three sentences, and how they encapsulate the essential implications of public choice theory — in our roles as political actors (here let’s focus on individuals as elected representatives and in regulatory agencies, not as voters), individuals prioritize self interest, broadly defined. This is the extension to the political decision realm of the self-interest assumption in our roles as purposive individuals in other decision settings. Many individual politicians are motivated by good intentions (the “public interest”, making the world a better place, “giving back”, bringing resources to his/her community), and some are also motivated by the desire to control and manage the choices of others and how others live their lives. Public choice theory is general enough to accommodate that diversity of motivation and intent.

More insidiously, though, the fact that political power gives politicians coercive power to make decisions about the resources and the choices of others means that even those who have good intentions and good ideas can, do, and often must use control and coercion to satisfy those intentions and attempt to implement those ideas. Thus even well-intentioned politicians use the system of coercion and control to attempt to achieve their ends. And I hope Sarah doesn’t mind my paraphrasing a Facebook comment of hers on this point, because it’s apt: by definition, politics means using the state’s monopoly on force, and being a politician means that you contribute to decisions that will use that force to enshrine your “honest mistakes or infelicitous actions” in a pretty permanent way in the lives of many, many people, including those the politician says s/he wants to help. If that politician is unaware of that likelihood, or doesn’t care, that’s asshattery. It’s also hubris. And it’s pervasive in politics.

Sarah goes on to point out that this outcome is not accidental or a flaw, although some of us may consider it perverse. Here’s where the study of institutions and incentives becomes important — once these individuals become politicians, they are embedded in a set of institutions that shape their incentives. They face the tragedy of the commons in the federal budgeting process, because to bring resources home to their constituents means either decreasing resources somewhere else that doesn’t matter as much to them or increasing government spending in ways that can unsustainably increase government debt (oh, hey, did you know we’re hitting another government debt ceiling in October?). They trade votes and engage in log-rolling to achieve what they style as “compromise”. The incentives are inherent in the institutions, and they are bad incentives that lead to inferior outcomes and to politicians being asshats. Of course there are nuances and degrees of asshattery, especially if you look on an issue-by-issue basis at the questions you find most pressing. But remember the initial formulation: occasional support that aligns with your preferences does not change the fundamental, underlying institutional incentives.

Note that this asshat designation is not a statement about personal character or merit of the individual politician. It’s a statement about the institutionally-driven incentives facing each individual politician regardless of their motivations or intentions. And that’s what makes it such a pithy and damning statement about the pernicious effects of political decision processes, even (or perhaps especially) political decision processes in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. It is the nature of our political institutions that politicians are asshats, and therefore

[t]hey are wasting your time and your money and your energy. They are allying you with people you hate and with causes you despise and with actions you would never condone.

Don’t wait around for them to save you or the things you think are important. Don’t think you’ve found the politician who can fix your world.

Realizing this nature of political institutions opens up the idea that political processes are not necessarily the only or the best way to approach social conflicts and problems. Thinking about alternatives, about experimenting with different approaches, about the impossibility of doing away with all social problems, gives us opportunities to be creative and to enable other approaches to emerge.

“In the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project”: Nixon’s Project Independence

When Arab oil exporters imposed their embargo on the U.S. and the Netherlands in October 1973, George Schultz noted that the United Kingdom and France faced hardly any problem accessing crude oil supplies.Schultz was Secretary of the Treasury at the time and had earlier been in charge of Nixon’s Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control.

The United States too, despite the embargo’s intent, faced few problems accessing crude oil supplies–the effect of the embargo was mostly to rearrange tanker routes, at modest additional cost to U.S. importers, and import levels were barely affected. Supplies were not too affected, but world oil prices jumped. The oil import allocation system was not up to the challenges presented by the needed market response, and the result was an uneven pattern of regional shortages and surpluses that were difficult to correct: movements across U.S. government planning regions required government permission.

As I mentioned yesterday, it was the import allocation system in combination with oil price controls that turned the world oil price increase into an energy crisis in the United States.

Economic problems often create political problems for the President. But Nixon, increasingly entangled in Watergate scandal revelations in late 1973, found the growing energy crisis to be a useful political device. On November 7, 1973, the President announced “Project Independence”:

Let us set as our national goal, in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project, that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources.

Let us pledge that by 1980, under Project Independence, we shall be able to meet America’s energy needs from America’s own energy resources.

No people in the world perform more nobly than the American people when called upon to unite in the service of their country. I am supremely confident that while the days and weeks ahead may be a time of some hardship for many of us, they will also be a time of renewed commitment and concentration to the national interest.

Nixon’s simple political narrative–bad Middle Eastern oil producers were a threat to our economic security–was readily accepted and politicians have seized onto “energy independence” slogans ever since.

Nixon’s popularity had peaked near 67 percent at his second inauguration, January 1973, then began sliding down throughout the year. The Project Independence speech coincided with a stabilization of his popularity around 25 percent, where it remained until his resignation in August of the next year.

RELATED: Peter Grossman’s book, U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure, hammers hard on politician’s invocation of Apollo and Manhattan Project analogies when announcing outsized energy research goals. There is an immense difference, Grossman explains, between pursuing a known technological task at incredible expense and pursuing speculative scientific developments with the goal of fostering a new commercial energy product (fusion power, synfuels, wind power, solar power, cellulosic ethanol fuels, etc.). If the book could only cure politicians of this one failing, it would have been worth Grossman’s efforts in producing it. Of course, as Grossman points out, there are many other political failings as well.