Archive for the ‘#governmentsubsidies’ Tag

Stealing From Your Neighbor Through Subsidies   Leave a comment

In 2017, the Montana Public Service Commission approved (4 to 1) the renewal of Commnet Wireless’s Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) certification, authorizing that company to receive a federal “Lifeline” subsidy of $34.25 for every customer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation – an amount sufficient to render their service free to most users. Previously, this same company received $2.2 million in Universal Service Fund (USF) “high cost” subsidies to build their infrastructure in Rosebud County. This subsidy paid for all of their capital costs in establishing their business, debt-free, while producing for them a tidy annual profit of almost $1 million.

Image result for image of fiber optic cableIt seems that Commnet Wireless is “living the American Dream” – at everyone else’s expense. But that’s not a rare circumstance.

 

The Universal Service Fund was first created by Congress in 1934 then greatly expanded under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Clinton was President). It is funded by a dedicated federal tax on consumer phone bills. This, ironically, makes the very services Congress wishes to expand less affordable, especially to lower-income Americans. The program is premised on the belief that an ever-expanding set of telecommunications services are the “right” of all citizens, and should thus be made “universal” by the generosity of Washington’s re-distributional political class.

The program started with landlines, then expanded to wireless and is now being applied to broadband — and not just any broadband, but high-speed fiber-delivered broadband. The Lifeline program gives away free cell phones and subsidizes low-income and tribal households. The Connect America Fund and “High Cost” programs directly subsidize telephone companies, as well as schools, libraries and rural health care facilities to provide “free” Internet. USF’s total annual budget is currently $10.5 billion, or $84 per American household.

That’s a month of Internet at my home, where I can’t get high-speed broadband because the infrastructure doesn’t exist. We can get “high-speed” DSL that drops out 2-3 times a day because people are making phone calls or cable Internet which is slower than high-speed fiber. I’ve never lived anywhere that offered high-speed broadband because our local Internet providers just don’t see a profit in providing it and permitting laws don’t allow competition. So do I have a “right” to high-speed fiber-delivered broadband? I haven’t died without it up to this point and we’ll pursue that thought further down.

Like all federal programs, USF proceeds blindly with the assumption that shoveling federal dollars at something automatically produces the desired outcomes – outcomes that would not otherwise happen if people were left to spend more of their own money, and the marketplace was allowed to respond to human needs and desires absent government intervention. It’s not surprising to learn then, that the FCC has never reliably measured to what extent the subsidized telecommunications services would have expanded just as much – or more – into the targeted high-cost areas, without any subsidies needed – and done so at lower cost. Dollars spent are considered a successful outcome regardless of actual outcomes.

In Alaska, rural villages and the Native corporations that they own came to the conclusion that, since the cities don’t have fiber-based high-speed broadband yet, the villages would have to provide it for themselves. Internet is currently provided via satellite and it sucks. Several corporations made a decision to contract with Anchorage-based Quintillion for a land- and sea-based fiber-optic cable network with an overall capacity of 30 terabits per second. Each of the five communities in the network currently will have access to up to 200 gigabits of data per second. If demand increases, the capacity can be increased according to Quintillion. It went live December 13. Four other villages will be added this coming summer.

This is a side project to a planned Tokyo to London fiber cable. It’s being financied by Leonard Blavatnik, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, through the Cooper Investment Fund, but there are also Alaska-based investors including subsidiaries of Native corporations Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Calista Corp, two of the largest “private” companies in Alaska. Eventually, this cable is expected to provide fiber-delivered Internet to Fairbanks and Anchorage.

So what do we learn from that? The time has come to re-think wealth transfer schemes like the USF, that eliminate price signals, supplant the free market, and create the net effect of increased government dependency and a culture of entitlement. As with any other good or service in a free economy, consumer demand for rural high-speed broadband should be based on the willingness of consumers to pay for the full cost of that service – not based on political pandering that subsidizes one man at another’s expense. A shell game with predetermined winners and losers, lacking any credible metrics and amounting to little more than a glorified multi-billion dollar welfare program.

Saying we “want” something as long as somebody else pays for it is not “demand”. Currently, broadband build-out into high-cost areas is based almost entirely on artificial demand – created by subsidy – rather than on true demand, created by value-seeking consumers in the marketplace, responding to the price signals of true cost. If consumers in outlying areas value fiber-delivered high-speed internet enough to pay the full cost, then we have genuine demand and the market will see to it that these services are provided – without any government involvement.

If consumers are unwilling to pay the true cost, then demand does not exist, and presumably won’t exist until private enterprise finds ways of delivering better service at a lower price. But that incentive disappears when the government steps in. Saying we “want” something as long as somebody else pays for it is not demand. It is little more than theft dressed up by the agency and power of government. Personal responsibility – the foundational principle of a free society – is replaced with “but I want it, so you should pay for it.”

According to my research, you can get high-speed broadband for $30 a month in New York City. Here in Alaska’s second-largest city, I can get slower cable-based Internet for $100 a month — actually, I could get cable Internet for as low as $60 a month, but you can’t watch Netflix without going over the monthly limit. Of course, we don’t have high-speed broadband because the current cost for building broadband or wireless infrastructure into rural and low-population areas is obviously higher on a per-customer basis – perhaps 50 to 100 percent more. One of the fundamental principles of sound economics is the alignment of benefits with costs. When you subsidize a good or service, you can no longer know what people are actually willing to pay as consumers because the government has gotten somebody else to pay for them.

This arrangement tends to convince rural customers that the full price is “unjust” to those who have chosen to live in the country. At the same time, it obstructs the very progress that would bring lower prices about. The subsidized companies have a reduced incentive to economize and to innovate since their profit is all but guaranteed without it.

Public service commissioners everywhere need to understand that it is not the job of the state commissions to rubber stamp federal programs that evidence shows are harmful in the long run to the people they serve. Subsidies like USF produce obvious beneficiaries. Government giveaways always do. They are highly visible. The market-driven benefits produced by those same dollars, left in the hands of those who earned them, are always far greater, but cannot be specifically identified. They become the opportunities lost, the blessings of liberty that were aborted before their birth.

Thus, government creates an illusion of value and benefit, when in reality all it has done is substitute government spending for spending in the marketplace by the frugal, self-interested, wage-earning consumer. The fantasy of a net benefit is bestowed on the person who wasn’t involved in the working or the earning – convinced by politicians that he had it coming all along. Surely, high-speed broadband is in the Constitution somewhere.

Once established, climbing out of the Subsidy Entitlement Pit is never easy. The smoke and mirrors of perceived benefit are so effective, that it becomes very difficult for elected officeholders to do the right thing, by choosing freedom over political security. It is far easier to avoid criticism and “go with the flow.”

To be sure, doing the right thing and doing the easy thing are rarely companions that walk the same path. Doing the right thing requires an extra measure of principle, courage and integrity, something most politicians and government workers lack.

What this comes down to is not just an economic consideration, but also the need to educate people on just what is a “right”. I have no right to anyone else’s stuff. I only have a right to what I can produce myself or trade with others from what I can produce myself.

So, for example, I am a writer and administrator. I make money from both of these endeavors. I can take the money and buy stuff with it, stuff that someone else has produced. One-hundred dollars of my earnings go every month to my cable provider to provide Internet service. I don’t have cable television or this would be the biggest bill in my budget. I get what I get. From the perspective of someone with fiber-delivered high-speed broadband, my Internet service is clunky. But would I be willing to pay $200 a month for fiber? No way! I simply don’t have that sort of wriggle room in my budget. If it were available for that cost, I would continue with the service I have now because I make choices of what to do with my money.

My neighbor says he wants high-speed Internet, but he isn’t willing to pay $200 for it. So, he petitions the cable company and the city government to apply for ETC funds. Pretty soon, my cable bill increases because the company is trying to finance fiber. Also my telephone and cable bill taxes increase. Now, even though I have elected to stay with ordinary Internet service because I don’t want to pay for fiber, I am paying for my neighbor’s fiber.

That’s theft. And there is no scenario where you can say that you have a right to steal from someone else, even if you do it through a government program.

Farm Subsidies Hurt Us All   1 comment

Putting myself into the community of Emmaus required that I study up on agriculture in the United States and I discovered some ugly truths about farming in America that really pissed me off. While the web of farm regulations and subsidies will mean my characters go hungry as they face a Midwestern winter, in real life if means that the poor of the world go hungry.

Image result for image of new zealand farming

For example, in the EU, agricultural protectionism has resulted in European consumers paying as much as 17% more on agricultural goods than the rest of the world. The distortion caused by protectionism are also evidence in the US. In both cases, it really hurts the poor.

 

We all purchase and consume food. Rich or poor, we all have to eat. How we spend our food budget is impacted by our income.

Low-income folks statistically spend around 4% more of their incomes on food than do the wealthy. A $100 food budget represents a greater amount to a person with $1,000 than to someone with $10,000, even if they’re consuming the same amount of calories. While richer families are able to spend the bulk of their income on luxury goods or on savings, every penny counts when half of your income goes on food. Thus, the poor are hit especially hard by increasing food costs. An increase in the cost of bread can be devastating when your budget is tight, even if it’s only by a small amount.

So, it would seem like the major question is “how do we keep food prices down?” The most selected answer in the US and EU is “government programs.” But these programs actually drive up food prices, so are not effective anti-poverty programs.

As with most other goods and services, when left alone, market forces allow for the agriculture and food sector to diversify and flourish. This would result in readily available, cost-effective food for all … except the government got involved.

 

Agricultural protectionism itself comes in various forms. Farm subsidies are pretty common and are designed to guarantee farmers a fair wage. What they usually result in is overproduction and waste.

 

Tariff and nontariff barriers to foreign entry are also common and aim to prevent farmers from foreign countries from providing cheaper products and undercutting local producers (ironically almost exactly what subsidized farmers do after overproducing).

Blocking foreign competition results in higher prices for agricultural goods due to a lack of competition. As a result, consumers in protected economies usually wind up paying more for foodstuffs than if the market were free.

Image result for image of new zealand farming

There’s even evidence that subsidies contribute to obesity. In the United States, the majority of farm subsidies go to crops like corn, wheat, and soy — primarily used as food for livestock and as sweeteners — whereas subsidies for fruit fall far shorter. As a result, unhealthy foods have their prices artificially lowered while the healthy stuff stays expensive. Thus, poorer members of society are not only made to pay a greater percentage of their income, but they often have to forgo a healthy diet to do so.

Meanwhile, farmers and consumers south of the equator have a much better time of it.

In New Zealand, farms were liberated from state interference following an agricultural crisis back in the 1980s. Farmers were left without subsidies after the market reforms, ultimately resulting in Kiwi agriculture booming into one of the most diverse and efficient markets in the world.

Not only were prices decreased, but previously ignored sectors popped up as well — including the now-booming New Zealand wine industry.

Like New Zealand, Australian farmers are among the world’s least subsidizedwhile its agricultural economy is diverse and efficient, resulting in the gross value of production in that sector reaching record levels this year at AU$62.8 billion.

Seeing how unsubsidized farmers flourish down south, one is forced to question why we stick with protectionism in Europe and the US.

Most American politicians and certainly most regulators believe they’re doing the working man, including the farmer, a favor. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Implementing protectionist principles in the agricultural sector raises prices for consumers, promotes overproduction, damages developing economies, and lowers efficiency and innovation. Conversely, unregulated farming results in diversification, growth, and efficiency. Consumers pay less for better products, and healthier foods are more readily available. Diversification also leads to new markets and sectors, resulting in a higher availability of jobs.

Let’s stop pretending that agricultural protectionism helps anybody — especially the poor and working class and most especially the farmer. Europe and the US need to follow in our Southern Hemisphere cousins’ footsteps: Free the farms, and feed the poor.

Posted December 19, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in Common sense

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FHA Mortgage Rate Cuts Are Subsidies, Not Tax Relief | Eric Schuler   Leave a comment

This is another related article to the series on Economics in One Lesson.

 

Should renters subsidize home buyers and banks?

Image result for image of a mcmansion next to a small houseThat question may sound rhetorical. But judging by the reaction to President Trump’s action on the subject of the Federal Housing Administration, a surprising number of people would answer it in the affirmative.

Last Friday after the inauguration, the Trump Administration announced that it was canceling a planned 0.25% cut in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance premiums. The cut had been announced by the Obama Administration less than two weeks earlier, but had yet to be implemented. Thus, Trump’s action was a return to the status quo that existed at the start of 2017.

It’s a complicated issue, so it’s easy for politicians and journalists to obscure the reality of what’s going on here and advance a political agenda.

For instance, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) used the opportunity to attack Trump for being a hypocrite. “One hour after talking about helping working people and ending the cabal in Washington that hurts people, he signs a regulation that makes it more expensive for new homeowners to buy mortgages,” Schumer said.

If the FHA has to pay out more in default claims than it receives from too-low insurance premiums, then taxpayers are left with the bill.

Meanwhile, left-leaning media outlet The Intercept described Trump’s decision as a tax increase on middle-class homebuyers that helps the banking industry.

Both of these takes are misleading, but it’s not obvious why unless we understand the underlying mechanics of the FHA program.

What Does the FHA Do?

The FHA does not give out mortgages directly. Instead, it offers mortgage insurance to borrowers that protects lenders if the borrower defaults. In other words, the FHA provides a government guarantee that a loan will be repaid.

This government guarantee allows FHA-insured borrowers to get generous and forgiving loan terms that would probably not be available otherwise. Borrowers can qualify for an FHA-insured loan with as little as a 3.5% down payment and with a credit score as low as 580 (on a scale from 300 to 850). In this way, the program extends the opportunity to own a home to more people–people with less savings and/or riskier credit histories.

FHA mortgage insurance is not given away for free. Borrowers pay for the FHA mortgage insurance as part of their monthly mortgage payments, as a percentage of their overall loan.

FHA insured loans expand the pool of potential borrowers and homeowners, in line with the FHA’s mission. At least on the surface, this directly helps those borrowers. To the extent that FHA insurance allows borrowers to access better financing terms than the private sector would offer, the program acts as a subsidy to those borrowers.

In the last crisis, there was no shortage of people who stretched to buy expensive homes and were wiped out later.

The premiums paid to the FHA, by the borrower, offset the value of the subsidy. All things equal, if the insurance premiums are higher, the net value of the subsidy is lower and vice versa. Thus, Obama’s decision would have increased the value of the subsidy and Trump’s decision canceled it.

But the American taxpayer is on the hook if the system fails. If the FHA has to pay out more in default claims than it has received from insurance premiums–because it has charged premiums that are too low–then taxpayers are left with the bill.

A taxpayer bailout is not just a theoretical outcome. The FHA received a bailout to the tune of $1.7 billion as recently as 2013.

Who Benefits?

Image result for image of a mcmansion next to a small houseThe overall impact on borrowers is up for debate, but the FHA program offers clear benefits to interest groups. Reducing the mortgage fee premium would have reduced the size of required monthly mortgage payments, further expanding the pool of borrowers. More borrowers would be able to buy a house, and borrowers who could already afford a house could buy a larger one.

Banks and mortgage lenders benefit from access to an expanded pool of borrowers that comes backed with a government loan guarantee. Real estate professionals and the homebuilding industry would also enjoy the opportunity to sell more and bigger houses to more people. These groups would prefer FHA premiums be as low as possible to maximize their potential customer base.

Lower premiums put the FHA in a less stable financial position, which makes a future bailout more likely.

That said, it is worth debating whether the FHA program is really helping borrowers in the long run. Clearly, it helps them afford something they otherwise could not. That sounds like a benefit, but we must remember that the subsidy is not making the house itself cheaper nor is it increasing the borrower’s income. In effect, it allows prospective buyers to take out a much larger loan, with a lower down payment, than they otherwise could.

If house prices suffer even a modest decline, these same homeowners could quickly find their mortgages underwater (they owe a lender more money than the house is worth). Similarly, they might find themselves falling behind on mortgage payments if they become unemployed. In other words, just because the FHA enables more people to buy houses doesn’t mean that it is prudent for people to buy them. In the last crisis, there was no shortage of people who stretched to buy expensive homes and were wiped out later.

As noted above, the taxpayer is ultimately on the line if the FHA fails. Lower premiums put the FHA in a less stable financial position, which makes a future bailout more likely. Trump’s decision to cancel the premium reduction reduces the likelihood that we will experience another housing bubble bust. Taxpayers have benefited from Trump’s decision to cancel the premium reduction.

Obviously, the best scenario for the taxpayer would be to eliminate the possibility of a bailout by getting rid of the FHA in the first place. The next best thing is having the FHA run in a financially conservative way.

Why Renters Lose

Renters are also unambiguously harmed by the FHA program. And as premiums decline, the degree of the potential harm increases. This occurs in two ways.

First, renters are harmed by the FHA as taxpayers. If the FHA requires another bailout like it did in 2013, renters will have to cover a share of it, as will all taxpayers.

Trump’s decision to cancel the FHA premium reduction warrants praise, not criticism.

Second, renters end up paying rental prices that are inflated by the FHA. The mechanism here is less obvious, but no less real. Recall that the FHA enables people to buy homes they could not afford otherwise. This results in a higher demand which drives up housing prices. And as housing prices rise, rent prices follow. Presumably, without the FHA program, housing prices would decrease and renters would pay lowers amounts in rent each month.

This leads us to the most perverse effect of the FHA program. Generally speaking, renters tend to be poorer than homeowners. Similarly, renters who are unable to afford, or have such poor credit histories that they are ineligible even for, FHA loans are poorer than homebuyers who are able. So when the Housing Administration benefits home buyers and banks at the expense of poor renters, the result is an upward redistribution of wealth from the poor to the less poor. As insurance premium rates decrease, instances of upward redistribution increase.

So finally, we arrive back at our original question:

Should renters subsidize home buyers and banks? Or said another way, should the relatively poor subsidize the relatively rich?

Whether you identify as a libertarian, a progressive, or somewhere in between, the answer should be no.

And it follows that Trump’s decision to cancel the FHA premium reduction warrants praise, not criticism. Knowingly or not, he just prevented an unjust system from becoming more unjust

Source: FHA Mortgage Rate Cuts Are Subsidies, Not Tax Relief | Eric Schuler

Credit Diverts Production   1 comment

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate, but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group, but for all groups.

This is an ongoing series of posts on Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. You can access the Table of Contents here. Although written in 1946, it still touches on many of the issues we face in 2017, particularly the fallacies government economic programs are built upon.

 

I love this one because it really gets to the nitty-gritty about some economic habits we’ve fallen into in this country … or should I say, been manipulated into.

Hazlitt could simply have said “beware of government grants”, but he recognized that his readers were probably not all that smart. He knew he was dealing with farmers who receive agricultural credits.

In the eyes of most Congressmen the farmers simply cannot get enough credit … supplied by private mortgage companies, insurance companies or county blanks is never “adequate”. Congress is always finding new gaps that are not filled by the existing lending institutions, no matter how many of these it has itself already brought into existence.

Image result for image of government subsidiesCongress keeps finding “credit deficiencies” to repair. This, by the way, still exists, but it is also applied now to homeowners. Faith is these government policies springs from two acts of shortsightedness. One looks only from the standpoint of farmers who borrow and the other thinks only of the first half of the transaction.

All honest borrowers assume they must repay all loans. Credit is debt. By increasing the volume of credit, you are increasing the burden of debt. If we would keep our eye on the concept of debt rather than mislabeling it “credit” we might not be so tempted.

Hazlitt set aside the ordinary loans farmers received through private lending institutions and focused instead on government-provided and government-guaranteed loans. He also set aside farm subsidies for later discussion. Here, Hazlitt concentrated on the capital loans that farmers use to buy the farm, tractor and other equipment.

At first glance, the case for this type of loan may seem a strong one. Here is a poor family … with no means of livelihood. It is cruel and wasteful to put them on relief. Buy a farm for them, set them up in business, make productive and self-respecting citizens of them; let them add to the total national product and pay off the loan out of what they produce.

Aren’t you enriching the whole community through this loan? Yes and private institutions offer these loans all the time, but there is a qualitative difference between a private loan and a government loan. A private lender risks his own funds or the funds of his depositors, who earn interest on allowing the private lender to risk their funds, while being guaranteed the banker will make good from his own funds if the money is lost. When people risk their own funds, they are careful in their investigations to determine the borrower’s ability to repay the loan.

If government operated on the same strict standards, there would be no good argument for its entering the field at all.

Image result for image of government subsidiesBut the government operates on different standards. It makes loans to people who can’t get them from private lenders. Government lenders will take risks with the taxpayers’ money that private lenders will not take with their own money. There is therefore a higher rate of losses in government loans than in private loans but the apologists for public loans will contend that this is offset by added production.

The argument holds water so long as we only look at the borrowers and not the ultimate source of the funds — that taxpayers who have been deprived of their income.

What is really being lent is not money, which is merely the medium of exchange, but capital. What is really being lent is the farm or the tractor itself. These are limited items. The farm or tractor being lent to A cannot also be lent to B.

The real question is, therefore, whether A or B shall get the farm.

We must then look at the merits of A and B. A is the person who would get the farm if the government did not intervene. The local banker knows him and his record. They know he’s a good farmer and an honest man. They consider him a good risk, a man who has accumulated enough cash to pay one-fourth of the price of the farm. They loan him the other three-quarters because his character and prior track record has earned him the banker’s trust. Sometimes things go wrong, but generally people of good character repay their loans, thus bankers are willing to loan money to A.

But the government goes into the lending business with a charitable frame of mind because it is worried that B cannot get a loan from private lenders because he doesn’t have credit with them. He lacks savings, he’s not an impressive farmer … maybe he’s even drawing welfare now. This loan will make him a productive citizen. Government can help with that.

Maybe. Sometimes people of good character fall on hard times, but in general people selected by these government standards are poorer risks than people selected by private standards. More money will be lost by loans to them. People who were previously not as efficient or trustworthy do not suddenly change their character when they are given a loan, which explains the mortgage collapse of 2008. That’s a verifiable fact. But what we don’t see, is the other half of the equation – the effect on A.

Because B has a farm, A is deprived of a farm. A may be squeezed out entirely because interest rates rise as a result of government operations or because farm prices increase as a result of them, or because there are fewer affordable farms available to those using private loans.

[T]he net results of government credit has not been to increase the amount of wealth produced by the community, but to reduce it, because the available real capital (consisting of actual farms, tractors, etc.) has been placed in the hands of the less efficient borrowers ratehr than in the hands of the more efficient and trustworthy.

The proposal for government-backed business loans applies to other businesses too, where the argument is that government “ought to assume the risks that are ‘too great for private industry.’ Bureaucrats are permitted to take risks with the taxpayers’ money that nobody would ordinarily make with their own funds.

This policy leads to favoritisim, cronyism, and out and out bribery. There are recriminations everytime the taxpayers’ money is thrown away on enterprises that fail. Think Solydra. This increases the demand for socialism because “if government is going to bear the risks, why should it not also get the profits?.

What justification could there possibly be … for asking the taxpayers to take the risks while permitting private capitalists to keep the profits.

Hazlitt asked his readers to focus on just one consequence of loans of this type — they waste capital and reduce production. They throw available capital into dubious projects, into the hands of people who are less competent or trustworthy than those who otherwise would have used the capital in a more productive way.

Private lenders want to get their investment back, so they weigh the prospects of profits against the changes of loss. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, but they make fewer mistakes than government lenders because the money is their own (or they are responsible to pay it back to the actual investors), whereas government lenders have an unlimited supply of taxpayers’ money.

The proposal for government loans to private individuals or projects … sees B and forgets A. … It is one more illustration of the fallacy of seeing only a special interest in the short run and forgetting the general interest in the long run.

Now, Hazlitt turned to subsidies. Government lends or gives to business only what it has already taken away from another business. When the New Deal proponents bragged about “bailing business out” with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, etc, the government was not providing any financial help to business that it had not previously taken from other businesses. Government doesn’t create anything of its own. It’s funds all come from taxes. It taxes successful private businesses and individuals to support unsuccessful private businesses.

This is not good for the country as a whole.

Posted January 17, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in economics

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