Texans should pay higher taxes

From Breitbart, “Drumbeat to raise gas tax extends to conservative event“:

Texans should pay higher gasoline taxes, a Texas Tech University professor advocated at a policy conference organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin on April 16. He acknowledged that how transportation dollars are spent must also be carefully considered.

Generally, I’m a “starve the beast” proponent, but I endorse the view expressed above. In fact, I said it.

“Fuel taxes serve as a road ‘user fee’,” said Michael Giberson, who serves on the faculty at Texas Tech’s College of Business. “Those who use the roads, pay for them.”

Giberson told the TPPF conference attendees that the tax should be increased to a level that brings in the same revenues as in 1991–when the tax was last increased.

Texans currently pay 20 cents per gallon, but to meet the 1991 spending power Giberson said the rate would need to be 33.7 percent. He also recommended tying the gas tax to inflation, so that it would increase automatically.

Giberson acknowledged that more fuel efficient engines and electric-powered cars mean the gas tax will continue to be a declining revenue source. He said other options, such as charging Texans on the basis of their miles-driven, should be considered even as he acknowledged concerns about privacy and practical implementation.

I’d quibble just a bit with the characterization of my presentation. I didn’t recommend a 33.7 cents/per gallon tax, but rather was illustrating the toll that inflation had taken since the state gasoline tax was last raised. I did suggest tying the tax to inflation, but commented that the current method allows the tax to diminish over time and forces the legislature into direct action to raise it. I like that latter idea better the more I think about it.

In Texas two things stand between the fuel taxes and the user fee concept. First, about half of the gasoline tax is federal, 18.4 cents/gallon for gasoline, and Texas gets only about 80 percent of the Texas-sourced federally-collected fuel taxes back from Washington DC. The money comes back with some federal strings attached and some of the money is diverted from projects that benefit fuel taxpayers. Second, the feds 20 percent cut off the top is actually better for Texas fuel taxpayers than the state’s cut. By law, 25 percent of fuel taxes collected in Texas go to state government educational funding, so Texas road users only get about 75 percent of the Texas-sourced state-collected fuel taxes back from Austin. The 25 percent cut of fuel taxes for education is enshrined in the state’s constitution (a holdover, I suspect, when fuel taxes were paid primarily by the wealthy).

In response I favored proposals circulating in Congress to radically cut the federal fuel tax and related spending, and shift the responsibility for revenue collection and spending to the states. Congress has a duty to protect interstate commerce, but that need not involve a massive federal overhead to manage. I’d like to claw back the 25 percent fuel tax take from state educational funding, too. We amend the state constitution in Texas just about every other year, so that is no big deal, but because the amendment would appear anti-education I see it as a hard sell.

I also urged more use of toll roads, which have become much more efficient these days, and congestion-based tolls on roads where congestion is a frequent issue. (Nothing annoys me more than some denizen of east coast metropolitan areas saying federal gasoline taxes ought to be higher because it will reduce congestion. For example. No amount of taxing my cross-Texas drives is going to speed your east coast metropolitan commute.)

In the Breitbart article TPPF Vice President Chuck DeVore pushed back against my tax-raising views. He hasn’t changed his views, but recently in response to President Obama’s transportation spending proposal, DeVore’s views and mine seem pretty close: cut the federal role dramatically and let the states decide the mix of taxes and tolls needed to fund transportation infrastructure for themselves.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation put together a great event, with a program organized largely by TPPF staff economist and recent Texas Tech econ PhD Vance Ginn. Happy to be part of it.

Links to video from the conference and presentations are posted, along with links to other media coverage of the event (mostly focused on the Dallas Fed chairman’s lunchtime remarks, not the “gasoline tax controversy”, but I tried). My presentation is second in the panel 1 video.

ADDED: After my presentation I had two promising suggestions from conference attendees. One is that, given that almost all of the actual wear and tear on the roads in Texas come from heavy trucks rather than cars and light trucks, we should tax large commercial vehicles more–probably on a vehicle-miles traveled basis–and the “user fee” for personal vehicles likely falls to something reflecting the modest consequences of driving relatively lightweight vehicles. Trucking companies would complain, and the political prospects of the idea are probably not good. Otherwise makes a lot of sense to me. The other suggestion was to employ certain oil and gas drilling fees currently in surplus for road work, at least for the road improvements needed in the parts of the state experiencing significant increases in commercial traffic due to the oil and gas drilling boom. The suggestion seems a bit kludge-y to me, but comes with enough symmetry between the payers and the beneficiaries to be plausible. Good enough for government work, as is said.

AWEA brags about wind energy’s mediocre performance

On May 2 The Hill published a column by AWEA data spinner Michael Goggin, “Wind energy protects consumers,” in which the reader is regaled by tales of great service and low, low prices provided by the wind energy industry.

Sorting through the claims led me back to the AWEA blog, where among other things Goggin applauds the industry that pays his salary for its grand performance in trying times this past January in New York. Goggin exclaimed the New York grid operator “received very high wind output when it needed it most during the last cold snap, while other forms of generation experienced a variety [of] problems.”

Following the link provided to the NYISO press release I find the claim, “On Tuesday, the NYISO had the benefit of more than 1,000 MW of wind power throughout much of the day.” The New York grid operator reported peak demand during the day (January 7, 2014) at 25,738 MW, so wind energy’s contribution was in the 4 percent range. Another way to say that is that other forms of generation, despite experiencing a variety of problems, provided about 96 percent of the energy New York consumers received when they “needed it most.”

The AWEA website indicates that New York has an installed capacity of 1,722 MW of wind power. Doing the math reveals that about 40 percent of the wind energy industry’s generating capability failed to show when New York electric power consumers “needed it most.”

Impressive? Not really.

To more fully consider the situation, we’d have to ask just how much non-wind electric generating capacity has been driven from the New York market by subsidized wind power. It is part of the AWEA storyline that clean, low-cost wind energy “displace[s] output from the most expensive and least efficient power plants,” and obviously over time frequently displaced units are driven from the market. One may reasonably wonder how much generation capacity was driven from the market before that cold January day when New York electric power consumers “needed it most.”

In related news, the National Renewable Energy Lab just produced an exploration of the wind energy industry’s future with and without the Production Tax Credit. In brief, if the PTC is not revived once again, the industry will likely shrink by about half over the next several years, kept in business mostly by state renewable energy purchase requirements. Indirectly the study concedes that NREL doesn’t think wind power is cost competitive with alternative electric energy supplies, but under the best possible wind resource and grid access conditions.

Please note my occasional wind energy disclaimer: I am not against wind energy (a technology which can contribute real value in the right places), just against bad policy (which takes real value created by other people and shovels it in the direction of investors in wind energy assets and people who happen to own windy plots of land with good grid access).

Easy to dream big when you can spend other people’s money, and really, why else would you build solar power in Michigan?

Crain’s Detroit Business reports:

A solar power work group in Michigan is making progress discussing the possibility of expanding the current utility-sponsored solar incentive program ….

But the real question is whether DTE and Consumers will voluntarily expand their programs — as environmentalists, manufacturers and solar installers have been asking the state to require for job creation and public health reasons — before the programs expire in 2015.

Involved in the solar power work group discussion are state regulators, solar PV installers, solar PV manufacturers, environmental groups, and the state’s two large regulated utilities, DTE and Consumers Energy Co., who collect a regulator-approved renewable energy surcharge from their customers.

Not mentioned in the article are the views of retail electric power consumers, whose money is up for grabs, nor anyone thinking of federal taxpayers’ stake in the matter.

There is a respectable answer to the question “why else would you build solar energy in Michigan?” If you have strong pro-solar commitments, for ethical or other reasons, the you may well feel strongly enough about it to be willing to spend your own money on a system. Or, if you are off-grid or want to be, solar is one way to stay powered.

But the answer most prevalent in the work group, at least if the Crain’s article is a guide, is much less respectable: they are mostly people who feel strongly enough about solar power–or the money they might make from it–that they want to force their unwilling neighbors to pay.

Background on the Michigan solar power work group can be found at the pro-solar-policy Michigan Land Use Institute.

New York Attorney General grapples to regulate new web-based businesses in old ways

The New York Attorney General (AG) had an op-ed in the New York Times presenting a curious mix of resistance to change, insistence on regulating new things in old way, acknowledgement that web-based businesses create some value and regulators can’t always enforce rules intelligently, and sprinkled now and again with the barely disguised threat that regulators will not be refused in their efforts to assert dominance over the upstarts. Actually, the threat is not even barely disguised:

Just because a company has an app instead of a storefront doesn’t mean consumer protection laws don’t apply. The cold shoulder that regulators like me get from self-proclaimed cyberlibertarians deprives us of powerful partners in protecting the public interest online. While this may shield companies in the short run, authorities will ultimately be forced to use the blunt tools of traditional law enforcement. Cooperation is a better path.

Ah, yes, the “blunt tools of traditional law enforcement.”

The two targets of the piece are room-sharing service Airbnb, with which the AG’s office has already clashed in court, and car-finder Uber, which the AG may or may not charge with price gouging for the company’s surge pricing policy.

Another example is Uber, a company valued at more than $3 billion that has revolutionized the old-fashioned act of standing in the street to hail a cab. Uber has been an agent for change in an industry that has long been controlled by small groups of taxi owners. The regulations and bureaucracies that protect these entrenched incumbents do not, by and large, serve the public interest.

But Uber may also have run afoul of New York State laws against price gouging, which do serve the public interest. In the last year, in bad weather, Uber charged New Yorkers as much as eight times the company’s base price. We are investigating whether this is prohibited by the same laws under which I’ve sued gas stations that gouged motorists during Hurricane Sandy. Uber makes some persuasive arguments for its pricing model, but the ability to pay truly exorbitant prices shouldn’t determine someone’s ability to get critical goods and services when they’re in short supply in an emergency. I’m hopeful that the company will collaborate with us to address the problem thoughtfully.

You know the Seinfeld/Uber story, right? Last December during heavy snows in Manhattan Jessica Seinfeld used Uber to get her children to Saturday evening social obligations and, due to the company’s surge pricing policy, was charged $415. Even though the app notifies you of the price up front, before you call a car, Ms. Seinfeld felt compelled to complain on Instagram with a picture of her $415 charge and the caption, “UBER charge, during a snowstorm (to drop one at Bar Mitzvah and one child at a sleepover.) #OMG #neverforget #neveragain #real”

Uber, the AG’s office is giving you time to think it over, so what will it be: thoughtful collaboration or the “the blunt tools of traditional law enforcement”?

But I’m not sure what kind of thoughtful collaboration with the AG’s office is going to help Uber get the children of the rich and famous through the snow to their social obligations in a timely fashion. We can cap the amount that the much, much poorer private car drivers of New York City can offer to drive the offspring of the rich and famous through the snow, but that probably will lead those much, much poorer private car drivers to head home instead, and force the rich and famous to send their doormen out into the streets to compete for access to the limited supplies of well-regulated taxis.

 

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.

Price gouging-moral insights from economics

Dwight Lee in the current issue of Regulation magazine offers “The Two Moralities of Outlawing Price Gouging.” In the article Lee endorsed economists’ traditional arguments against laws prohibiting price gouging, but argued efficiency claims aren’t persuasive to most people as they fail to address the moral issues raised surrounding treatment of victims of disasters.

Lee wrote, “Economists’ best hope for making an effective case against anti-price-gouging laws requires considering two moralities—one intention-based, the other outcome-based—that work together to improve human behavior when each is applied within its proper sphere of human activity.”

Intention-based morality, that realm of neighbors-helping-neighbors and the outpouring of charitable donations from near and far, is good and useful and honorable, said Lee, who term this as “magnanimous morality.” Such morality works great in helping family and friends and, because of the close relationship, naturally has a good idea of just what help may be needed and when and where.

When large scale disasters overwhelm the limited capabilities of the friends and families of victims, large-scale charity kicks in. Charity is the extended version magnanimous morality, but it comes a knowledge problem: how does the charity identify who needs help, and what kind, and when, and where?

The second morality that Lee’s title referenced is the morality of “respecting the rights of others and abiding by general rules such as those necessary for impersonal market exchange.” This “mundane morality” of merely respecting rules does not strike most people as too compelling, Lee observed, but economists know how powerful a little self-interest and local knowledge can be in a world in which rights are respected. Indeed, the vast successes of the modern world–extreme poverty declining, billions fed well enough, life-expectancy and literacy rising, disease rates dropping–can be attributed primarily to the social cooperation enabled by local knowledge and voluntary interaction guided by prices and profits. The value of mundane morality after a disaster is that it puts this same vast power to work in aid of recovery.

The two moralities work together Lee said. Even as friends and families reach out in magnanimous morality, perhaps each making significant sacrifices to aid those in need, the price changes produced by mundane morality will engage millions of people more to make small adjustments similarly in aid. A gasoline price increase in New Jersey after Sandy’s flooding could trickle outward and lead gasoline consumers in Pittsburgh or Chicago to cut back consumption just a little so New Jerseyans could get a little more. Similarly for gallons of water or loaves of bread or flashlights or hundreds of other goods. Millions of people beyond the magnanimous responders get pulled into helping out, even if unknowingly.

Or they would have, had prices been free to adjust. New Jersey laws prohibit significant price increases after a disaster, and post-Sandy the state has persecuted merchants who it has judged as running afoul of the price gouging law.

Surely victims of a disaster appreciate the help that comes from people who care, but they just as surely appreciate the unintended bounty that comes from that system of voluntary social interaction guided by prices and profits called the market. Laws against post-disaster price increases obstruct the workings of mundane morality, increase the burden faced by the magnanimous, and reduce the flow of resources into disaster-struck regions.

Perhaps you think that government can fill the gap? Lee noted that restricting the workings of mundane morality increases the importance of political influence and social connections, but adds the shift is unlikely to benefit the poor. On this point a few New Jersey anecdotes may inform. See these stories on public assistance in the state:

We often honor the magnanimous, but we need not honor the mundane morality-inspired benefactors of disaster victims.  While the mundanely-moral millions may provide more help in the aggregate than the magnanimous few, the millions didn’t sacrifice intentionally. They just did the locally sensible thing given their local knowledge and normal self-awareness; doing the locally sensible thing is its own reward.

We need not honor the mundanely moral, but we also ought not block them from helping.

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.