Tag Archives: fossil fuel subsidies

What Really Matters?

Assuming the accuracy of recent polling, even people who don’t follow politics or the news with the sort of intensity characteristic of people who comment on this blog have come to recognize that President Trump is insane.

The crazy tweets, the babbling, “word salad” responses to even soft-ball questions from Faux News, the cringe-worthy, extended defense of his wobbly descent down the ramp at West Point, and most astonishing (at least to me) his apparent belief that if we just don’t test people, the Coronavirus will magically go away–are finally taking their toll.

My own response to what I see right now might properly be labeled bipolar: on the one hand, I am terrified of Democratic complacency. This pathetic ignoramus won once–it could happen again. There is still a hard core of voters who respond to his racism and share his overwhelming sense of grievance. On the other hand, polling–both state and national–reflects widespread disapproval; credible media outlets have taken to calling lies, lies (not just “assertions for which there is no evidence”) and previously reliable Republican constituencies are forming pro-Biden PACs. (The Lincoln Group–the first such effort–is producing and airing some of the most devastating–and accurate–political ads.)

So… my thoughts have turned to the massive clean-up job that will await the Democrats if–as I devoutly hope–November delivers both the White House and the Senate.

That cleanup is by no means assured. Universal detestation of Trump has unified a party that is famous for its lack of unity. (Who was it who said “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat”?) With victory will come the inevitable fractures between the moderates, progressives and leftwing factions of the party.

In the House, I have some confidence that Nancy Pelosi can avoid truly dangerous schisms; the Senate will be dicier, and if Moscow Mitch is re-elected, he can still do enormous damage as Minority Leader.

It’s all very uncertain, and that uncertainty is made worse by the fact that there is considerable ambiguity about what optimum “repairs”–both structural and policy– should look like. Some examples:

  • The federal courts. It’s not just the Supreme Court.  McConnell has managed to put 200 rightwing ideologues on the federal bench, a number of whom have been rated “unqualified” by the ABA. There are a number of proposed “fixes”–from expanding the number of judges to pursuing impeachment against those who engage in the most egregious misconduct. Whatever course of action is taken, returning the courts to the status of impartial arbiters should be a priority.
  • Other structural issues that cry out for attention sooner than later include gerrymandering, the filibuster, money in politics and the Electoral College. (Whether the Electoral College can ever be fixed–either by the Popular Vote Compact or Constitutional Amendment is a “known unknown.”)
  • Repairing the incredible amount of damage done by Trump’s Mafiosa-like cabinet–especially the savage assault on environmental protections by the procession of fossil fuel lobbyists who’ve run the EPA, and Betsy DeVos’ fundamentalist attacks on the very concept of public education–also requires immediate attention.
  • Repairing America’s reputation abroad–restoring our relationships with allies, signaling that yes, America had a psychotic break, but we’re recovering–is critical. We need to rejoin the alliances Trump discarded, reaffirm our commitment to NATO, etc.,etc. Fortunately, foreign policy has been Biden’s strong suit.
  • Attacking our appalling economic inequality by raising both taxes on the rich and the minimum wage.
  • On the policy front, it is long past time for comprehensive immigration reform–not just the immediate cessation of horrendous ICE practices under Trump, but a sweeping revision of immigration policy that discards the racism that has characterized it.
  • It is equally past time to ensure that all Americans have access to healthcare, whether that is via a public option or single payer. (And maybe we should reconstitute that pandemic task force.)
  • Then there’s our crumbling infrastructure. And the elimination of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuel interests. And a long, hard look at farm subsidies (and who’s getting them.) And in the (highly unlikely) world of my dreams, beginning to dismantle and “defund” the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about.

I bet you all can add to this daunting list…..

Unlike culture-war quarrels about who’s using what restroom, or whether women should be able to control their own reproduction, these are the issues that really matter.

These are the issues that define–or defy–assertions of American “greatness.”

 

 

Affording My Brave New World

An even longer one. Sorry.

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Even if you found yesterday’s post persuasive, a UBI seems politically impossible and cost prohibitive.

Politically, shifting from a paternalistic and judgmental “welfare” system to one awarding benefits based upon membership in the polity would not only require a significant culture change, but would be vigorously opposed by the large number of companies and individuals whose interests are served by America’s current patchwork of programs, subsidies and policies.

Then there’s the issue of cost.

Although Americans’ deeply-ingrained belief that people are poor because they made bad choices or didn’t work hard enough continues to be a barrier to a more generous and equitable social safety net, the most significant impediment to passage of a Universal Basic Income is the argument that has consistently been made to thwart universal healthcare– that America, rich as the country is, simply cannot afford such a Brave New World. This argument flies in the face of evidence from counties with far more robust safety nets: In 2012, the U.S. spent an estimated 19.4% of GDP on social expenditures, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Denmark spent 30.5%, Sweden 28.2% and Germany 26.3%. All of these countries have a lower central government debt to GDP ratio than the United States.

While specific economic recommendations aren’t possible in the absence of concrete, “fleshed out” policy proposals, it’s possible to identify ways in which universal programs might be financed, and how they might affect economic growth. The short answer is that both the UBI and some version of Medicare-for-All could be funded by a combination of higher taxes, savings through cost containment, economies of scale, reduction of welfare bureaucracy, the elimination or reform of existing subsidies, and meaningful reductions in America’s bloated defense budget.

Debates over taxes rarely if ever consider the extent to which individual taxpayers actually save money when government relieves them of the expense of a service. Even now, requiring citizens to make out-of-pocket payments for such things as scavenger services (in lieu of municipal garbage collection), or private police and fire protection or schooling, would vastly exceed the amounts individual households pay in taxes for those services. Low-income citizens, of course, would be unable to afford them.

The American public is positively allergic to taxes, even when a majority financially benefits from them. If low-and-middle income American families did not have to pay out-of-pocket for health insurance, and could count on a stipend of $1000/month, most would personally be much better off, even if they experienced increases in their tax rates. They would likely see other savings as well: for example, if the U.S. had national health care, auto and homeowners’ insurance rates could be expected to decline, because insurance companies wouldn’t have to include the costs of medical care in the event of an accident or injury in their actuarial calculations. Research also predicts the country would see a decline in crime, child and spousal abuse and similar behaviors that have been found to increase under the stresses associated with poverty. (The extent of such reductions and the cost savings attributable to them is speculative, but a substantial level of abatement seems likely.)

Most tax increases, obviously, would be levied against those capable of paying them. Americans used to believe in progressive taxation, and not simply to raise revenue. Taxes on the very wealthy were originally conceived as correctives, like tobacco taxes, that should be judged by their social impact as well as their ability to generate revenue. High tax rates on the rich were intended to reduce the vast accumulations of money that serve to give a handful of people a level of power deemed incompatible with democracy.

A recent report from the Guardian calculated the results of (relatively modest) increases in taxes on the very rich.

Right now they pay about 30% of their income in taxes. Increasing their overall average tax rate by about 10 percentage points would generate roughly $3tn in revenue over the next 10 years, while still leaving the 1% with an average post-tax annual income of more than $1.4m. (That new tax rate, by the way, would be about the same as the overall rate the richest 1% paid back in the 1940s and 1950s.)

As indicated, in addition to reducing inequality, progressive taxation does raise money, and there is widespread agreement that the very rich aren’t paying their share. At the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman caused a mini-sensation by telling the uber-wealthy assembled there than the “real issue” in the battle for equality is tax avoidance and the failure of rich people to pay what they should. Momentum is clearly building for more progressive tax rates than the United States currently imposes.

There is also growing anger directed at the generosity of various tax credits and deductions, aka “loopholes,” that allow immensely profitable corporations to reduce their tax liabilities (or escape them completely). The use of offshore tax havens and other creative methods of eluding payment devised by sophisticated tax lawyers employed by the uber-wealthy is an ongoing scandal.

Real-world experiments like Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cuts in Kansas confirm that, contrary to the ideological arguments against imposing higher taxes on wealthy “makers,” high marginal rates don’t depress economic growth and cutting taxes doesn’t trigger an increase in either job creation or economic growth. In 1947, the top tax rate was 86.45% on income over $200,000; in 2015, it was 39.60% on income over $466,950. During that time span, researchers have found very little correlation between economic growth and higher or lower marginal rates. In 2012, the Congressional Research Service published a research study that rebutted the presumed inverse correlation between tax rates and economic growth.

Climate change is affecting America’s weather, increasing the urgency of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase the development and use of clean energy sources. Yet the United States spends twenty billion dollars a year subsidizing fossil fuels, including 2.5 billion per year specifically earmarked for searching out new fossil fuel resources, at a time in human history when the development of those resources is contraindicated. According to Oil Change International, permanent tax breaks to the US fossil fuel industry are seven times larger than those for renewable energy. At current prices, the production of nearly half of all U.S. oil would not be economically viable but for federal and state subsidies.

During the 2015-2016 election cycle oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying, and received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years – an 8,200% return on investment. The OCI report concluded that: “Removing these highly inefficient [fossil fuel] subsidies – which waste billions of dollars propping up an industry incompatible with safe climate limits – should be the first priority of fiscally responsible climate, energy, and tax reform policies.” Not incidentally, eliminating these subsidies would free up funds for other uses, including the social safety net.

Then there are farm subsidies– another 20 Billion dollars annually. Arguments for and against terminating these subsidies are more complicated than for fossil fuel subsidies, but the case for means-testing them is strong.  In 2017, the USDA released a report showing that approximately half the money went to farmers with household incomes over $150,000. As Tamar Haspel wrote in the Washington Post, “That means billions of dollars, every year, go to households with income nearly three times higher than the median U.S. household income, which was $55,775 that year.”

Farm subsidies were created during the Depression in order to keep family farms afloat and ensure a stable national food supply. Since 2008, however, the top 10 farm subsidy recipients have each received an average of $18.2 million – that’s $1.8 million annually, $150,000 per month, or $35,000 a week. These farmers received more than 30 times the average yearly income of U.S. families. Millionaires are benefitting from a program originally established to protect family farms during times of economic distress.

Most citizens understand why government should not be providing billions of dollars to support companies that make climate change worse, or adding to the bottom lines of already-profitable corporate farms. Efforts to cut the military budget encounter genuine anxieties about endangering national security, as well as more parochial concerns from lawmakers representing districts with economies heavily dependent upon military bases or contractors. Those concerns may explain why U.S. military spending in 2017 was over 30% higher in real terms than it was in 2000.

The United States will spend $716 billion in 2019, and annually spends more than twice what Russia, China, Iran and North Korea spend collectively.

Critics of the military budget make three basic arguments: the budget is much bigger than threats to U.S. security require; very little of the money appropriated supports efforts to fight terrorist groups that pose the real threat in today’s world; and the countries that might threaten America  militarily are historically few and weak. (Russia, for example, has an energy-dependent economy roughly the size of Italy’s. According to America’s intelligence community, its efforts to destabilize the U.S. are made through social media, assaults by “bots,” and hacks into vulnerable data repositories, not military action.)

The massive amounts that America spends on its military are used to support bases and troops that are ill-suited to the conduct of modern-day defense. (Even the Pentagon has estimated that base capacity exceeds need by 20%) The existence of this enormous military capacity also creates an incentive to substitute military intervention for the exercise of diplomacy and soft power (as the Japanese proverb warns, when the tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.)

An argument can also be made that we are supporting a military establishment that is prepared to fight the last war, not the next one.

As one military expert has written, “counterterrorism is poorly served by manpower-intensive occupational wars, which rarely produce stability, let alone democracy.” He argues the U.S. could safely cut the military budget by 25%; even if he is wrong about the size of the savings that could be realized, knowledgable observers suggest that modernizing military operations, restraining America’s all-too-frequent interventions into the affairs of other countries, and focusing on actual threats would translate into very significant savings.

The elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, and the reduction of farm subsidies and military expenditures would allow lawmakers to achieve substantial savings while pursuing important policy goals. The government ought not be abetting climate change or further enriching wealthy Americans, and it is past time to reconfigure national defense to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Andy Stern lists a number of ways a UBI might be funded, including “cashing out” all or most of the existing 126 welfare programs that currently cost taxpayers $1 trillion a year. The UBI would make many if not most of these programs unnecessary.

Stein also lists a number of targeted tax proposals, including a Value Added Tax (VAT), that have been suggested by economists supportive of a UBI. As he points out, these and other proposals constitute a “menu” of possibilities. (Another example: If the UBI allows workers to cover basic essentials, taxpayers would be relieved of the need to supplement the wages of McDonalds and Walmart workers,  saving government some ten billion dollars annually.) If and when America has a Congress that is serious about reforming both our democratic decision-making structures and our social infrastructure, that menu provides a number of options from which to choose.

America’s problem is a lack of political will to confront the special interest groups that currently feed at the government trough, not a lack of realistic funding mechanisms.

Subsidizing Our Own Destruction

That biblical admonition about “love of money” being the root of all evil continues to be pertinent.

We are now experiencing the initial effects of climate change–effects that scientists have warned about for many years–and sane people know that much worse is to come. Yet rather than directing resources to measures that will ameliorate it, governments all over the globe are continuing to subsidize behaviors that are known to make the problem worse.

The public is providing more than $1m per minute in global farm subsidies, much of which is driving the climate crisis and destruction of wildlife, according to a new report.

Just 1% of the $700bn (£560bn) a year given to farmers is used to benefit the environment, the analysis found. Much of the total instead promotes high-emission cattle production, forest destruction and pollution from the overuse of fertiliser.

The security of humanity is at risk without reform to these subsidies, a big reduction in meat eating in rich nations and other damaging uses of land, the report says. But redirecting the subsidies to storing carbon in soil, producing healthier food, cutting waste and growing trees is a huge opportunity, it says.

The report rejects the idea that subsidies are needed to supply cheap food. It found that the cost of the damage currently caused by agriculture is greater than the value of the food produced. New assessments in the report found producing healthy, sustainable food would actually cut food prices, as the condition of the land improves.

To add insult to injury, in the U.S., those subsidies disproportionately fatten the wallets of big corporate farming operations–not the small family farms urban folks envision when the subject is raised.

Nor is our pell-mell race toward self-destruction limited to farming. When I was researching my most recent book, I was astonished by the enormity of the subsidies of fossil fuels. Despite the fact that climate change is already affecting America’s weather, increasing the urgency of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and increase the development and use of clean energy sources, the United States spends billions of dollars a year subsidizing fossil fuels. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuels in recent years than it has on defense spending. The IMF found that when indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas were factored in, subsidies reached $649 billion in 2015, a year when Pentagon spending was $559 billion.

Most inexplicable of all is the fact that that amount includes 2.5 billion per year specifically earmarked for searching out new fossil fuel resources.

Oil Change International calculates that permanent tax breaks to the US fossil fuel industry are seven times larger than those for renewable energy. Several of those fossil fuel subsidies make it profitable to extract resources that it would not otherwise be cost-effective to extract.  Energy experts tell us that, at current prices, the production of nearly half of all U.S. oil would not be economically viable, but for federal and state subsidies.

The Obama administration had proposed to eliminate 60% of federal fossil fuel industry subsidies, but–surprise!– that proposal went nowhere.

During the 2015-2016 election cycle oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying. The industry received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years – reaping a 8,200% return on investment.

It is difficult to argue with the conclusion of the OCI report: “Removing these highly inefficient [fossil fuel] subsidies – which waste billions of dollars propping up an industry incompatible with safe climate limits – should be the first priority of fiscally responsible climate, energy, and tax reform policies.”

Our first priority should be the election of lawmakers who will not be seduced by “love of money” and who will work to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.

 

 

Energy and the Marketplace

Congressional critics made sure that Americans heard about the “scandal” of Solyndra, the green energy start-up that failed and defaulted on its government loan. But we haven’t heard much about the federal government’s renewable energy loan program since then–probably because there hasn’t been a subsequent opportunity to twist results in order to make political hay.

Since 2005, the Department of Energy has loaned $34.2 billion to a variety of businesses to spur development of clean-energy technology. A recent NPR report notes that– while there have indeed been defaults (amounting to $780 million, or 2.28 percent of the total)– DOE has also collected $810 million in interest payments, for a profit of $30 million.

The default rate on these loans is well below the rate of commercial loan defaults typically experienced by traditional banks, according to data maintained by the Federal Reserve. NPR went back to those who criticized the loan program three years ago, but none of the critics would comment for the record.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz pointed out that the loan program had funded the first of five huge solar projects in the West. Before that, developers couldn’t get money from private lenders, but now they can.

“We have to be careful that we don’t walk away from risk, because otherwise we’re not really going to advance the marketplace,” Moniz told NPR.

This is precisely the way government loans are supposed to work: to “prime the pump.” When new technologies are deemed too risky for the private marketplace, when the rehabilitation of depressed neighborhoods makes it impossible to get traditional mortgages–in short, when the private sector is not willing to encourage the sort of entrepreneurial activity that benefits us all–governments can step in and jump-start the process.

Of course, once the pump has been primed–once a market has been established and risk moderated–government needs to withdraw and allow the private marketplace to operate. The problem in our (increasingly oligarchical) system is that industries are happy to continue (excuse my vulgarity) sucking at the public tit. So we end up continuing to subsidize companies that have enjoyed years of obscene profits, are sitting on huge cash reserves and have absolutely no problem obtaining necessary financing.

Fossil fuel companies, for example.

In the United States, credible estimates of annual fossil fuel subsidies range from $10 billion to $52 billion annually. These numbers do not include the significant costs attributable to externalities related to the climate, or to the other environmental and health impacts of the fossil fuel industry. We taxpayers also pay those costs, which are another form of subsidy.

Here’s my question to all the critics who screamed bloody murder about Solyndra and the DOE program generally: where’s your indignation about the immense and counterproductive costs of continued fossil fuel subsidies?