Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stealth Laws and Subsidy Bubbles

HR 2454, The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passed the House on Friday. It is a 1,090 page document with a 300 page amendment document that apparently was never reconciled before the vote. This led to an interesting question from Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton:

"If a bill for which there is no copy were to actually pass this body," Barton asked, "could the bill without a copy be sent to the Senate for its consideration?"

Answer: Not unless Pelosi and Reid have telepathic powers of which we are unaware. Should a bill ever materialize in the physical realm, it's likely most senators won't read it either. Which raises another question; Can anybody still call this "representative government" with a straight face? I suppose that the act of voting either up or down would represent someone. But who?

From what I gather from people who have some semblance of an idea what's in the bill, it contains taxpayer funded subsidies for renewable energy projects. Unlike the "hard news watchdogs" who are busy barking at Michael Jackson's multiple autopsies, George Will has some actual information about it in his latest opinion piece. He includes a link to a study done by economics professor Gabriel Calzada at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. Spain is a world leader in renewable energy production. Not coincidentally, Spain also has an official 18% unemployment rate. Some excerpts from the reports summary:

Spain’s experience cited by President Obama as a model reveals with high confidence, by two different methods, that the U.S. should expect a loss of at least 2.2 jobs on average, or about 9 jobs lost for every 4 created, to which we have to add those jobs that non-subsidized investments with the same resources would have created. is not possible to directly translate Spain’s experience with exactitude to claim that the U.S. would lose at least 6.6 million to 11 million jobs, as a direct consequence were it to actually create 3 to 5 million “green jobs”... the study clearly reveals the tendency that the U.S. should expect such an outcome.

Each “green” megawatt installed destroys 5.28 jobs on average elsewhere in the economy: 8.99 by photovoltaics, 4.27 by wind energy, 5.05 by mini-hydro. These costs do not appear to be unique to Spain’s approach but instead are largely inherent in schemes to promote renewable energy sources.

Professor Calzada's study goes on to discuss the dangers of "countercyclical" situations. The countercyclical is a fairly simple, mainstream idea familiar to any economist, and goes like this:

1) The government wishes to fill a perceived need and calls for incentives (taxpayer subsidies) to be provided to private industry.
2)The taxpayer funds are used as a selling point to attract private investors.
3)Investors, seeing a potential for short term growth, add their money to the pool (artificial demand and misallocation of resources).
4)Unpredictable and uncontrollable market forces (hurricanes, civil unrest, etc.) cause growth to slow, stop, or recede.
5)Private investors, seeing their returns drying up, pull their money out, causing the government to call for further and larger subsidies, which creates the countercyclical.
6)Seeing a possible recovery, private investment returns.
7) The cycle repeats with ever higher peaks and ever deeper troughs (Elliot waves).
8)The end is reached when government is either unable or unwilling to sustain ever larger subsidies to a now massive industry. Private investors, sensing that the end is near, begin selling in panic and the largest downturn of them all ensues.

We have seen two of these countercyclical patterns in the last twenty years. The technology bubble of the 1990's was allowed to crash. We are currently in a countercyclical period with the financial industry. It may or may not be the last; time will tell. Might we avoid all this and allow people to invest in value rather than artificial demand? Have our representatives learned nothing in the last twenty years? I wish I could be optimistic, but I see interesting times ahead.

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