Normative Narratives


Leave a comment

Transparency Report: Austerity In Egypt

Original article:

The Egyptian government sharply raised fuel prices early on Saturday, apparently signaling the resolve of the country’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to forge ahead with a series of austerity measures despite official concerns about a public backlash.

Fuel, bread and other goods are heavily subsidized in Egypt, where nearly 50 percent of the population lives under or near the poverty line. As Egypt has weathered years of economic crisis since the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, talk of overhauling the subsidy program, which eats up more than a quarter of the state budget, has taken on added urgency.

The government, which has embarked on a wide-ranging crackdown on its opponents, has also banned unauthorized demonstrations, raising the costs of any public unrest.

General consumption subsidies are intrinsically regressive; they benefit most those who consume the most, who are naturally the wealthiest. IMF demands that Morsi institute unpopular austerity measures in return for development aid was one the primary factors leading to public outrage against his rule. Sisi has been able to avoid the issue to this point thanks almost $20 billion in loans from Gulf Allies.

Egypt does need to reform its fuel subsidies, which are fiscally unsustainable. However, it must be done in a way that is sensitive to those in poverty–nearly 50% of the population according to the Reuter’s article. The government can satisfy both these demands by changing the general subsidy to a pro-poor social program, ensuring people are not left without basic necessities as the government puts itself on a more sustainable fiscal path. Sustainability is more than a budgetary number; society’s most vulnerable must have their basic needs met. If they do not, the ensuing insecurity threaten’s any “sustainable” gains made (which may be exactly what Sisi wants, as insecurity creates the demand for his militaristic style of governance).

Further clouding the issue is Egypt’s nontransparent military budget, which was enshrined in it’s new constitutions. How can Egyptian’s make informed decisions about government expenditures when they do not have access to basic budgetary information? How can the people voice their discontent, given draconian restrictions on protests? The answer is, simply, they cannot.

Democratic governance goes beyond free and fair elections (which, by no stretch of the imagination, did Egypt have). Rule of law (including judicial independence), budgetary transparency, freedom of association and protest, access to information and media independence are all crucial democratic institutions missing from Sisi’s government.    

I have been a very outspoken critic of President Sisi’s brand of authoritarian governance. He has maintained since he overthrew President Morsi and assumed power that he was fulfilling “the will of the people”; that he has Egyptian’s best interests at heart, that a strong-handed rule is needed to provide the security needed for growth and development. The extent to which Sisi, a career military man turned politician, has manufactured this threat to justify an unaccountable military-industrial complex is open to debate–I would say this is exactly what he has done.

These austerity measures mark the first real governance test for President Sisi. This is a problem he cannot blame on “terrorists”, and one to which there is no military solution. Does Sisi truly care about the Egyptian people, or will he let the poor go without basic needs while the military enjoys carte blanche?

Advertisements


3 Comments

Economic Outlook: Public-Private Partnerships, for Better or for Worse

The following blog combines two previous topics discussed here at NN–Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and State subsidies to private corporations. While both technically represent a “pubic-private partnerships” (both public and private money going towards the same goal), that is where the similarities end.

Public-private partnerships, as they are intended, leverage public (tax-payer) money to raise private sector money for a cause. These partnerships often raise money for innovative purposes, in order to help cultivate new industries which indirectly lead to future jobs and tax-revenue. Universities, as centers of R & D and learning / training, also have a role to play in PPPs teaching people the skills needed to take part in this innovation. An example of a PPP that functions this way are President Obama’s recently announced manufacturing institutes.

With less than two weeks till his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Mr. Obama hastened to make good on a pledge from last year’s speech, announcing the creation of a high-tech manufacturing institute aimed at creating well-paying jobs.

Speaking to 2,000 students at North Carolina State University, which is leading a group of universities and companies that established the institute, Mr. Obama said it was the kind of innovation that would reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing economy.

This is the first of three such institutes the White House plans to announce in the coming weeks. It will be financed by a five-year, $70 million grant from the Department of Energy, which will be matched by funding from the consortium members, including the equipment maker John Deere and Delphi, an auto-parts maker.

The institute will use advanced semiconductor technology to develop a new generation of energy-efficient devices for automobiles, consumer electronics and industrial motors. Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Obama toured a Finnish company, Vacon, that makes drives used to control the speed of electric motors, to increase their energy efficiency.

Confessing that there was “a lot of physics” in the company’s presentation, the president seemed most interested in which of the components were made in the United States.

The announcement Wednesday of the new manufacturing institute showcased the White House’s determination to press ahead with jobs programs, with or without Congress. Mr. Obama said he was determined to make 2014 “a year of action.”

But it also laid bare the limits of Mr. Obama’s authority, since Congress has stymied his more ambitious proposals that require legislation. In last year’s State of the Union address, the president announced a $1 billion plan, modeled on one in Germany, to create a network of 15 institutes that would develop new industries.

But setting up 15 institutes would require congressional authorization. So last year, Mr. Obama narrowed his focus to establishing three institutes using existing funds and executive authority. At the same time, he increased his long-term goal to 45 institutes over 10 years, while acknowledging this would require congressional action.

To be clear, PPPs are not a call for charity–they represent mutually beneficial and sustainable economic arrangements. Businesses need future employees and customers, governments need non-dependent tax payers, a Universities future success is linked to it’s graduate employment rate, and people need jobs. If these projects prove successful, it will be difficult for congress to block the programs expansion.

Subsidizing individual corporate initiatives, on the other hand, does not lead to many of the positive externalities associated with PPPs. Unlike traditional PPPs, it does not give the government any ownership of a project–a company is free to leave for greener pastures if it receives a better offer after the terms of an agreement end, leaving a municipality with nothing but a large bill. Furthermore, this practice represent one aspect of a “race-to-the bottom” that pits the private sector against workers and society as a whole:

Boeing is a company that pits state governments against one another to compete for larger subsidies and forces communities into a race to the bottom to see who can fight unions and lower wages the fastest. It is a prime example of 21st century business in the United States. As a result of these tactics, American workers, both unionized and independent, have little choice but to accept the lowered living standards their employers offer as conditions for their doing business.

This practice has become common. In the last year alone, 13 states granted corporate subsidy packages of over $100 million to companies like Toyota, Yokohama Rubber, Boeing and MetLife. Many of these subsidies are not for job creation but for job relocation — to lure business over to one state at the expense of its friends and neighbors.

The story of Boeing is an example of how ruthlessly U.S. businesses use the needs of some workers to justify lowering the standards of others, to the ultimate detriment of both.

Boeing’s strategy is a profitable one. It saves the company money, reduces wages and benefits for workers and ultimately absolves the company of any financial responsibility to take care of its retirees. As a result, production workers, regardless of their state, are left with a smaller slice of a bigger pie. This is, of course, the point: “Now that we have internal competition (among production sites), we’re going to get much better deals,” Boeing CEO Jim McNerney explained in May.  The deals aren’t only on the price of labor, but on the size of subsidies, which states and municipalities must fit into their budgets by either raising taxes or cutting services.

Unless American workers miraculously rediscover collective bargaining or begin to lay claims on the government to promise what organized labor once provided, then their lives will continue to be shaped by companies like Boeing. Their wages will be taken out of their pockets, their tax money out of their schools and roads…

These initiatives, unlike PPPs which are aimed at innovation and job creation, only benefit a single corporation. Furthermore, these projects often amount to job relocation, as opposed to job creation. There are many good reasons for subsidies to exist; for example, subsidies can help promote “infant industries” and to reward positive externalities. However, giving tax-payer money to already profitable companies in order to lure jobs from one municipality to another is not one of them. Private sector job creation is not charity, it is a cost of doing business that companies would face regardless of a subsidy.

The problem is this country has empowered corporations at the expense of workers and societies as a whole. Don’t believe me? There is ample evidence of the different “recoveries” experienced by the “haves” and the “have nots” in America (spoiler: the wealthiest have done great post-recession, while masses have seen declining wages and standards of living). There are no easy fixes to this reality; only by championing workers rights, increasing minimum wages, and ending the municipal “race-to-the-bottom” (perhaps by creating a federal oversight board with the exclusive power to negotiate private-sector subsidies, based on needs-based C-B analyses) can we hope to take America back for the average working man / woman. PPPs can play a positive role in this transition, if they are used to spur new investment and industry. On the other hand, taking money out of public programs and giving it to private corporations will only exacerbate the divergence between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

It is true that we face a depressed labor market; in such an environment, people are afraid to speak up in fear of losing whatever job they do have. On a larger scale, politicians are unwilling to take any stand that may be met with retaliation by corporate interests. This fear is being used against the American public by corporations to further push down their costs even as they realize record profits. If we can overcome this fear, and challenge the bellicose rhetoric of private sector interests, we can begin to realize a redistribution of wealth which would benefit not only individuals but our economy as a whole.

It is up to Americans to decide what role we want the private sector to play in our economy, and elect leaders who will fight for those goals. Will we support corporations that share in the costs of sustainable human development, or will we continue to reward corporations that value short-term profits above all else?


Leave a comment

Economic Outlook: When Gauging Support for Raising the Minimum Wage, Poll its Biggest Opponents

Trend: Minimum Wage -- Real and Nominal Value, 1938-2013

There has been a strong push this holiday season (really dating much farther back) by a variety of labor groups seeking higher minimum wages. Specifically, Walmart employees, Fast-Food Workers, and most recently low-level financial sector employees have taken to the streets to make their demands for “livable wages” heard.

As one who believes in the positive externalities of a more egalitarian society, as well as a proponent of collective action, I am happy to see people using the tools at their disposal to overcome power-asymmetries that have persisted for decades. It would appear that I am not alone in this sentiment–according to Gallup polling, 76% of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $9/hr (69% support raising the minimum wage to $9/hr and indexing the minimum wage to cost of living increases).

Furthermore, the main fear associated with raising minimum wages–that it will lead to higher unemployment–has been debunked:

The idea of fairness has been at the heart of wage standards since their inception. This is evident in the very name of the legislation that established the minimum wage in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act. When Roosevelt sent the bill to Congress, he sent along a message declaring that America should be able to provide its working men and women “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” And he tapped into a popular sentiment years earlier when he declared, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Support for increasing the minimum wage stretches across the political spectrum. As Larry M. Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, shows in his book “Unequal Democracy,” support in surveys for increasing the minimum wage averaged between 60 and 70 percent between 1965 and 1975. As the minimum wage eroded relative to other wages and the cost of living, and inequality soared, Mr. Bartels found that the level of support rose to about 80 percent. He also demonstrates that reminding the respondents about possible negative consequences like job losses or price increases does not substantially diminish their support.

It is therefore not a surprise that when they have been given a choice, voters in red and blue states alike have consistently supported, by wide margins, initiatives to raise the minimum wage. In 2004, 71 percent of Florida voters opted to raise and inflation-index the minimum wage, which today stands at $7.79 per hour. That same year, 68 percent of Nevadans voted to raise and index their minimum wage, which is now $8.25 for employees without health benefits. Since 1998, 10 states have put minimum wage increases on the ballot; voters have approved them every time. But the popularity of minimum wages has not translated into legislative success on the federal level. Interest group pressure — especially from the restaurant lobby — has been one factor.

The social benefits of minimum wages from reduced inequality have to be weighed against possible costs. When it comes to minimum wages, the primary concern is about jobs. The worry comes from basic supply and demand: When labor is made more costly, employers will hire less of it. It’s a valid concern, but what does the evidence show?

For the evidence, lets turn to Dr. Krugman, who succinctly explains the evidence against this valid concern, and how “good” this evidence is:

Still, even if international competition isn’t an issue, can we really help workers simply by legislating a higher wage? Doesn’t that violate the law of supply and demand? Won’t the market gods smite us with their invisible hand? The answer is that we have a lot of evidence on what happens when you raise the minimum wage. And the evidence is overwhelmingly positive: hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment, while significantly increasing workers’ earnings.

It’s important to understand how good this evidence is. Normally, economic analysis is handicapped by the absence of controlled experiments. For example, we can look at what happened to the U.S. economy after the Obama stimulus went into effect, but we can’t observe an alternative universe in which there was no stimulus, and compare the results.

When it comes to the minimum wage, however, we have a number of cases in which a state raised its own minimum wage while a neighboring state did not. If there were anything to the notion that minimum wage increases have big negative effects on employment, that result should show up in state-to-state comparisons. It doesn’t.

So a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects.

But what do these “egg-heads”, in their “ivory-towers” know? They are out of touch with the real world! The person who suffers from minimum wage increases is not the academic, or even the large corporation. It is the small business owner who suffers–Mom and Pop! Well, Gallup polled small business owners on their thoughts of minimum wage increases, and responses were not as overwhelmingly negative as one would think:

vyrfizzd50i0v1wqhs_w_q.png

They were also polled on the effects of a minimum wage increase on how they invest back into their business:

4t56yhgje0ytveiaeoavtg.png

The majority of small business owners responded they would not reduce their current workforce (64%) or reduce worker benefits (60%) if the minimum wage was increased. The largest negative effect would be a reduction in capital spending (38%). However, in the context of a divergence of worker compensation from productivity, and a declining share of income going to labor (in favor of capital), perhaps such a re-balancing is not such a bad thing.

Small business owners are not thrilled about the prospect of a minimum wage increase–they are not expected to be. However, the fact that nearly half support raising the minimum wage says something about small business owners.

Perhaps they recognize peoples purchasing power is tied to their wages, so increasing wages will eventually lead to higher sales (especially considering minimum wage employees have a much higher marginal propensity to consume than wealthier people). Or perhaps these people are simply more in touch with what happens in the communities they live in than their big-business contemporaries. They know people living on the minimum wage aren’t lazy people waiting for a government handout; they are their friends, family, and customers. Perhaps they believe that more egalitarian communities are friendlier, safer places, and are willing to pay a little extra in order to achieve that goal. 

Increasing the minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular, and more popular among small business owners than one would expect. Furthermore, it would save billions of dollars in Welfare programs by ending an implicit subsidy for businesses who pay non-livable wages and stimulate the economy by redistributing income to people who are more likely to spend it.

The time to act has come; people are literally taking to the streets. It is also important to index the minimum wage to cost of living increases, so we do not experience the declining real minimum wage we have had for the past 4 decades. Indexing also avoids a political battle every-time the cost of living changes (which it constantly does).

I for one am interested and excited to see the myriad benefits that decreasing poverty rates and reversing the trend of increasing income inequality have on American society as a whole.


3 Comments

Economic Outlook: Neo-Classical Economics, Perfect Competition, and the Cost(s) of Attending College

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/1f86a-student-debt-cartoon-big.jpg

Student loan debt in America is a controversial subject. Some countries subsidize higher education, the U.S. does not. In the context of the past decades in America, marked by increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility, the issue has become even more controversial. Yong adults, often without parental support, are sold the panacea of higher education as a means to a better future. While it is true that college graduates make more and experience lower unemployment rates, simply “getting a degree” can often be counter productive. If the degree is in a field with very limited job opportunities, or due to cyclical economic factors outside individual’s control (i.e. a prolonged recession), a young adult may be saddled with student loan debt; far from enabling social mobility, an ill planned college decision can leave a person with a lifetime of debt and actually push them into a “poverty-trap”. Further exacerbating the problem, the importance of a college degree has drastically increased the demand of a college education, pushing up the average cost of attending college.

In America, public student loan debt is somewhere between $900bn and $1 trillion dollars–most economists agree that student loan debt and poor job prospects have caused young adults to put off moving out, depressing overall consumption and further prolonging the (growth) recession. Against this backdrop, the Obama administration has attempted to stymie the rapidly increasing costs of college education. Obama’s plan is essentially two fold, 1) subsidize student loan debt with fixed preferential rates, and 2) rank institutions–based on tuition, graduation and retention rates, student makeup and graduates’ earnings–and then tie federal aid to those rankings.

The Obama administration has already passed a watered down version of its proposed student loan plan. The plan will tie rates to the government borrowing rate (T-bill) plus a premium depending on the level of the degree being pursued. While a short term fix while the economy stagnates, a capped rate of 8.25% does not provide the stability or low costs of fixed subsidized rates that many were hoping for. The Obama administration kicked the can down the road; how far down the road remains to be seen and is largely independent of the merits of a college education.  Hopefully this short-term fix remains a fix for a while, and only becomes an issue again in a less contentious economic and political climate.

The second part of Obama’s plan, revealed yesterday at the University of Buffalo, proposes to publish information to make the decision process more transparent for prospective college students. Ultimately, Obama wants to tie federal aid to these rankings, creating an incentive for schools to keep costs down. If this part of the plan does not pass through congress, at least the information campaign segment of the plan is isolated from political gridlock. Opponents of the plan say that and results based plan will compromise the integrity of a degree, causing schools to make graduation easier. I find it hard to believe that a school would give up quality control over its most valuable asset–a degree–simply for student loan money.

Opponents of both of these plans contend that the government should get out of the student aid business and allow market forces to determine the price of a college education / student loan. At the root of this argument is the belief of neo-classical economics that perfect competition produces optimal outcomes for consumers, producers, and society as a whole. However, empirical evidence suggests a different outcome–rising costs of a college education without a related increase in the benefits of that education (and arguably decreasing benefits, as an undergraduate college degree becomes more commonplace and therefore less of a differential in hiring decisions). How could this be? Have people been duped into believing college is more valuable than it really is? While poor decision making by borrowers and lenders has surely exacerbated the problem of student loan debt and college tuition increases, the real culprit is in the assumptions underlying neo-classical economics and perfect competition. While no market in the real world completely fits these assumptions, the markets for college education and student loans are particularly ill matched.

Neo-Classical Assumptions:

  1.  People have rational preferences among outcomes — This could not be further from the truth. I have never met someone who is 100% rational (think Spock from Star-Trek). Some people are mostly rational, but in general people tend to be very short-sighted with consumption and investment decisions (or lack-thereof)–particularly those at the bottom of society who have little reason to be optimistic about their futures;
  2.  Individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits — Well it is certainly true that firms (in this case schools) move to maximize their profits. However, maximizing utility is more difficult to evaluate–everyone values things differently, has different discount rates for consuming now vs. saving for later, different values work vs. leisure time, etc. This assumption cannot be refuted, but really does not tell us much because of its ambiguity (peoples preferences are different and cannot be compared);
  3.  People act independently on the basis of full and relevant information — Far from full and relevant information, often times power and knowledge asymmetries lead to very poor decision making. The second part of Obama’s plan intends to overcome this information gap.


Perfect Competition:

Perfectly competitive markets exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. There is perfect knowledge, with no information failure or time lags.  Knowledge is freely available to all participants, which means that risk-taking is minimal and the role of the entrepreneur is limited. — The role of the entrepreneur (in this case the student) is not minimal. The availability of information and guidance can make the difference between a “good decision” (for example going to a public college for a STEM degree) vs. a “bad decision” (for example going to a private party school for a poetry degree). The time-lag is particularly pronounced in education decisions, college often requires a large upfront cost based on the belief that the net benefit (higher earnings – college costs – student loan fees – opportunity cost to attend college) will be positive. Even with perfect information today (which is very difficult to obtain) due to uncertainty about future borrowing costs (argument for fixing student loan rates) / job availability / degree obsolescence (the field advances or becomes irrelevant), the decision to attend college is largely a leap of faith–a leap that is continuing to fall short for many people (which is why college costs must be reigned in, to align the costs and benefits of a college education);
  2. There are no barriers to entry into or exit out of the market. — While there are no real explicit barriers to entry, the implicit barriers to entry are huge. Colleges require huge start-up costs, and take time in order to establish “prestige”. The best colleges have an implicit oligopoly (this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be noted); while they may partner with public institutions / community colleges, their demand for their services are rival, demand inelastic, and constantly in short supply. Public Colleges, technical schools, community colleges, and more recently online schools or “MOOCs” have become cheaper alternatives;
  3. Firms produce homogeneous, identical, units of output that are not branded. — Related to the previous point; while alternatives to “traditional schooling” are now available, they are generally not seen as comparable to University education (Public colleges are, but community colleges / MOOCs typically are not). Part of this has to do with the stigma attached to these alternative channels of education. Guidance counselors, college advisers, unemployment trainers  and even employers should all promote these differentiated services based on the needs and desires of potential applicants. Sometimes going to a technical college / pursuing an associates degree is more beneficial and (always) costs less than going to a traditional 4 year college–sometimes these options can be “stepping stones” to more advanced degrees as the young adult matures and reevaluates his/her priorities;
  4. Each unit of input, such as units of labour, are also homogeneous. — Each “input” is not homogenous–people go to college to explore their potential and study any number of diverse fields. Neither “inputs” nor “outputs” of colleges are in any way homogenous;
  5. No single firm can influence the market price, or market conditions. The single firm is said to be a price taker, taking its price from the whole industry. — No “market price” for colleges; inelastic demand, imperfect information and a shortage of spaces allow certain colleges to essentially charge whatever tuition rate they want;
  6. There are a very large numbers of firms in the market. — True, but this has not led to true competition due to increasing demand;
  7. There is no need for government regulation, except to make markets more competitive. — Well that’s the point…
  8. There are assumed to be no externalities, that is no external costs or benefits. — Certainly not true; there are undeniable positive externalities of college education for both individuals and society as a whole.
  9. Firms can only make normal profits in the long run, but they can make abnormal profits in the short run. — There is no end in sight to the rising cost of schooling without government intervention.

Empirical evidence and a baseline analysis of neo-liberal economics refutes the idea that the costs of college should be left for the markets to decide. One would hope our elected officials would be more educated on the subject, and could offer an alternative other than unfettered belief in the power of markets to produce optimal outcomes. Obama’s proposals seem to hit at the root causes of rising college costs; lets hope his plans are implemented. Even if they are not fully implemented, the short-term student loan rate fix and upcoming information campaign should provide temporary relief and begin reversing the trend of rising college costs.

Please do not get me wrong, I am a strong proponent of higher education. But it is no panacea and it can actually be counter productive if not addressed within a C-B framework. It is the job of the government to keep costs down (as self-regulation of college tuition simply does not exist), and subsidize college education (both loans and tuition) to reward the positive externalities of higher education. It is the job of people, aided by advisers, parents, and in the near future government collected data, to consider the benefits and costs of college, and make appropriate decisions for themselves. Underlying this C-B analysis should be fixed loan rates, otherwise a robust analysis is impossible.

Note: The inspiration for this blog is “Development Economic Through the Lens of Psychology” , an excellent journal article I highly suggest to my readers.


3 Comments

Conflict Watch: Oil Sand and Renewable Energy, a New Case for a Carbon Tax / Cap and Trade

An interesting piece in the NYT about how a less incentive-laden renewable energy sector in Europe is actually helping the industry grow “sustainably”:

“Europe used to be nirvana for companies in the clean-energy business, but in the past couple of years it has become a much tougher place. With economies anemic, electricity demand is down; and, not surprisingly, once-generous subsidies that encouraged installing swaths of solar collectors in sun-poor Germany or wind farms in relatively calm areas of France are either being reduced or look as if they could be.

But for some people and companies, the harsher environment is fostering a tough-minded approach that may be healthy for the effort in the years ahead to curb the greenhouse gases that are blamed for global warming.

Europe’s struggles, for instance, pushed Enel Green Power, one of the world’s largest electricity generators from renewable sources like wind and solar, to explore markets like Brazil, Chile and Mexico, that may turn out to be a lot more promising than Europe.”

“Contrary to the practice in much of Europe, where subsidies are used as a lure for renewables projects, developing countries like Brazil often award contracts to build new power capacity through competitions that sometimes pit clean energy against fossil fuels like natural gas and diesel. For instance, Enel Green Power recently won wind power deals in Brazil in bake-offs that included proposals for natural gas-fired stations.

‘There was a competitive approach to renewables that we liked a lot,’ said Francesco Starace, the company’s chief executive'”

“Mr. Starace especially likes long-term deals like the ones he has worked out in Mexico with Nissan and Nestlé to build wind farms to supply factories with power. He hopes to replicate this sort of arrangement across emerging markets, including east Africa. These private, one-on-one arrangements are more sustainable, he figures.

You don’t run the risk of a regulator or a state coming back at you and saying, ‘Guys, the good days are over, now we have to talk about reducing this and that,’ he said.”

“The goal of the renewables business, Mr. Murley said, should be to be competitive eventually on costs with other energy sources and not to rely on subsidies. He also believes in building businesses like his clusters of Swedish wind farms that have the scale to engage a team of managers and the clout to cut better deals with suppliers. His organization tries to buy turbines and other equipment that are reliable rather than cheap and does not skimp on spending money on maintenance.

The closer you are to the wholesale price of power, the less you are at risk,’ he [Tom Murley of HgCapital] said. He is also investing in onshore wind projects in Ireland, where the operating environment resembles that of Sweden.”

Talking about the “sustainability” of the renewable energy sector may be an interesting choice of words, but how the renewable energy sector matures is yet to be decided. Perhaps a rethinking of the subsidy approach to developing renewable energy would be a good think, if a more efficient complimentary / substitute path is proposed. Subsidies distort markets, so governments must have a credible threat that they will stop providing subsidy support if companies in the industry do not mature as they are  supposed to. But pulling the plug on subsidy programs is a bad move politically–it is always difficult to find politicians that are willing to let jobs leave their municipality.

What you get is subsidies and tax-breaks that are not at all linked to any real C-B analysis or long term commitment from companies (Another reason that making MNC themselves finance sustainable energy infrastructure makes sense as it locks the company into a longer term commitment–the cost of closing up shop is greater).  Some tax breaks and subsidies are good ideas, but they should be based on adequate C-B analysis and should contain long-term legally binding commitments. Additionally, tax breaks and subsidies for “dirty-energy” have to go, so that these two competing industries can actually compete on common ground. If we are considering an approach to scale back subsidies for an “infant industry”, removing subsides for a more mature competing industry must be part of that approach.

Ending tax breaks for “dirty energy” brings us to the next point of this article, which is the argument for some sort of carbon-tax or cap-and-trade system. If we are not going to reward the renewable energy industry for its implicit positive externalities, we should make dirtier forms of energy pay for their negative externalities. An article about “petroleum coke” highlights the need for something to keep emissions in check:

“Assumption Park gives residents of this city lovely views of the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit skyline. Lately they’ve been treated to another sight: a three-story pile of petroleum coke covering an entire city block on the other side of the Detroit River.

Detroit’s ever-growing black mountain is the unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.

And no one knows quite what to do about it, except Koch Carbon, which owns it.

The company is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who back a number of conservative and libertarian causes including activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change. The company sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste, usually overseas, where it is burned as fuel.”

““What is really, really disturbing to me is how some companies treat the city of Detroit as a dumping ground,” said Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan state representative for that part of Detroit. “Nobody knew this was going to happen.” Almost 56 percent of Canada’s oil production is from the petroleum-soaked oil sands of northern Alberta, more than 2,000 miles north.”

“Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.”

“And what about the leftover coke? The Environmental Protection Agency will no longer allow any new licenses permitting the burning of petroleum coke in the United States. But D. Mark Routt, a staff energy consultant at KBC Advanced Technologies in Houston, said that overseas companies saw it as a cheap alternative to low-grade coal. In China, it is used to generate electricity, adding to that country’s air-quality problems. There is also strong demand from India and Latin America for American petroleum coke, where it mainly fuels cement-making kilns.

“I’m not making a value statement, but it comes down to emission controls,” Mr. Routt said. “Other people don’t seem to have a problem, which is why it is going to Mexico, which is why it is going to China.”

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.“It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.””

“Lorne Stockman, who recently published a study on petroleum coke for the environmental group Oil Change International, says, “It’s really the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth,” he said.”

–Here we have an example of billionaire industrialists selling oil and shipping the dirty byproduct around the world to be burned, releasing even more emissions. And how much does all this profit-generating business pay for it’s emissions? Essentially zero. Oil sand creates 3rd degree pollution (burning of the oil, transportation of petro-coke, and burning of the petro-coke), and because of their lobbying power, industrialists are able to shift the cost onto future generations.

It is appalling our government, and other governments, let companies do this without paying anything for the emissions they produce.  Companies claim they cannot deal with a carbon-tax or cap and trade, while posting billion dollar profit margins. At the end of the day, a carbon tax is a small blip on the companies cost-function. Cap and Trade would initially not even make emissions more expensive, as the market is depressed (due to lower energy demand following the Great Recession) and swamped with low-price / free vouchers. For these reasons, a carbon tax would likely be more effective in the short-run, but having either system in place would be better than what we have now (which is essentially having no system in place to check emissions).

Corporate interests will always claim the sky is falling, and that any additional cost will bring that industry to it’s knees, forcing  them to outsource jobs and close operations. What we would see , I imagine, is that if you call this bluff, often companies will decide the cost and uncertainty of relocation is not worth the small price of paying for emissions (especially if that company had to install, say, a wind-farm when it started operations). If companies want access to developed countries markets, they should have to pay for their emissions. If America and Europe came up with a strong carbon-market (perhaps part of a larger U.S.-Europe FTA?), the rest of the world would join in. The ultimate goal would be a global carbon-market, which would eliminate the threat of companies to move operations to a lower regulation  area.

A double sided approach–ending subsidies / tax-breaks for both renewables and “dirty-energy”, combined with a carbon-tax / cap-and-trade system, could allow market forces to help renewable energy prices converge towards the price of more traditional forms of energy. It would do so while creating a more resilient renewable-energy industry, create a cleaner environment, and open up fiscal space for spending on important social programs.

This approach is different, and theoretically sound–it would be very interesting to see how effective a pilot version of this program could be.

Enhanced by Zemanta