Defending the Indefensible: Your Thoughts on the Benefits of Fuel Subsidies

Last post, I wrote about how many nations in the developing world, such as Egypt, subsidize gasoline and diesel fuel to keep the price at the pump artificially low. There are many ways in which this policy is ineffective, counterproductive, and just plain dumb: it wrecks the public finances of cash-strapped countries in order to create traffic congestion and air pollution, raises the world price of oil, and transfers money from the poor to the wealthy.

In fact, writing about this folly got me pretty irritated, and I’m ashamed to admit I decided to take out my frustration on you readers. So I challenged you to come up with arguments in favor of fuel subsidies, manipulatively using the siren’s song of a prize of Freakonomics swag to get you to twist your brains into pretzels.

Thanks to those of you who gamely tried; many of you confessed it wasn’t easy. For example, poor reader Rob complained that “I’m getting a brain cramp trying to think of a defense for Egypt’s policy.” Rob, I apologize and recommend sitting in a dark room while listening to a CD of soothing ocean sounds for awhile.

Fuel Subsidies: The World's Dumbest Transportation Policy?

There are plenty of transportation policy ideas which get my spider-sense tingling. But in most cases, I think it’s at least possible to form a coherent case in favor which doesn’t strain the basic tenets of logical argumentation. However, I am pretty much at a loss when it comes to government subsidies for transportation fuel, a strong candidate for the title of the world’s dumbest transportation policy.

In the developed world, governments often don’t tax fuel enough to make up for the externalities produced by driving. (Yes, United States, stop shuffling your feet and looking at the ground, I mean you.) But I’ve whined about that enough in the past.

In this post, let’s look at an even more egregious situation that is disturbingly prevalent in the developing world, especially in oil-producing countries (see this). Many governments not only do not tax fuel enough, but actually expend revenue to subsidize fuel and keep gas prices artificially low. In effect, they are paying people to drive.

The Wintry Economics of the Arab Spring

Most of the coverage of the turmoil in Egypt and Syria (the latter of which has decreased in proportion to an increase in coverage of the former) focuses on political, religious, and social factors. These are all obviously important. But once you read David P. Goldman's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the economic underpinnings of the Arab revolutions, you may see things differently. A few key excerpts:

Sometimes economies can't be fixed after decades of statist misdirection, and the people simply get up and go. Since the debt crisis of the 1980s, 10 million poor Mexicans—victims of a post-revolutionary policy that kept rural Mexicans trapped on government-owned collective farms—have migrated to the United States. Today, Egyptians and Syrians face economic problems much worse than Mexico's, but there is nowhere for them to go. Half a century of socialist mismanagement has left the two Arab states unable to meet the basic needs of their people, with economies so damaged that they may be past the point of recovery in our lifetimes.

This is the crucial background to understanding the state failure in Egypt and civil war in Syria. It may not be within America's power to reverse their free falls; the best scenario for the U.S. is to manage the chaos as best it can.

Does Democracy Make Us Richer and Better Educated? Or Is It the Other Way Around?

It's one of the ultimate chicken or egg questions: Does democracy lead to increases in education and income, or do education and higher income lead to democracy? It's a tricky one, considering that over the last 200 years, they've essentially moved in tandem across much of the developed world.

So which is affecting which? A new working paper (full version here) by Fabrice Murtin and Romain Wacziarg attempts to untangle the two to understand whether democracy grows from education and higher income, or vice versa.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. But It Will Be Tweeted

A new paper from Chris Edmond at the University of Melbourne examines how the quantity and quality of information impacts regime change. This is particularly timely in light of the Arab Spring taking place across the Middle East, and the current goose chase for Muammar Gaddafi.

Edmond constructs a simple model to study how a regime's chances of survival are a ffected by changes in information technology. He finds that information alone does not destabilize an oppressive regime. In fact, more information (and the control of that information) is a major source of political strength for any ruling party. The state controlled media of North Korea is a current example of the power of propaganda, much as it was in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, where the state heavily subsidized the diffusion of radios during the 1930s to help spread Nazi propaganda.