Back when blog posts were composed with reed styluses on clay tablets, I put up a couple of posts (here and here) on fuel subsidies in the developing world. These are generally 1) fiscally ruinous; 2) terrible for the environment and traffic congestion; 3) highly regressive with regard to wealth distribution; and 4) market-distorting by artificially promoting fuel-guzzling industries. So I made the case that this is a pretty foolish public policy, in fact one of the worst I can think of. It’s up there with tobacco subsidies, the Concorde, pretty much everything the North Korean government has ever done, and our government’s failure in spending a paltry $615,000 taxpayer dollars for UC Santa Cruz students to digitize priceless Grateful Dead photographs, t-shirts and concert tickets.
Given the problems with fuel subsidies, I promised a third post on what to do to eliminate them. But since I have a day job, and being a professor is much more difficult than it looked when I was undergrad, I’ve procrastinated on putting this last post up. However, engineering student Kishore from India wrote asking where part three is, and customer satisfaction is a goal here at Freakonomics. Besides, no doubt governments around the world have been waiting impatiently for my post before they start dismantling their fuel subsidies, so here it is.
Given the damning case against fuel subsidies, and a rising swell of opinion that they are counterproductive on many levels, why don’t these policies go away? The IMF (see this) and I offer several reasons: Read More »
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
The gist: the Federal gas tax is a primary source of infrastructure funding but, politically, it has proven a hard tax to increase. Furthermore, because the tax is a fixed amount (18.4 cents per gallon) rather than a percentage, gas-tax revenues don’t rise even when gas prices do — as has been happening lately.
So what’s to be done? Some politicians want to get rid of gas taxes in favor of an increased sales tax — which, Eric Morris argues, is a bad idea, since it shifts the burden to non-drivers. Read More »
A major story on the NBC Today Show was about the sharp rise in the price of gasoline. One “expert” claimed that, unless you have a very fuel-efficient vehicle, over a car’s lifetime gasoline will cost you more than the purchase price. Really? Say a new car costs $20,000, and is driven for 10 years, 12,000 miles/year. If gasoline is $4/gallon, and the car gets a paltry 24 miles/gallon, today’s average for new cars, gasoline costs $20,000. So, even without discounting. the “expert” is wrong.
Even if gas were $5/gallon, unless one discounts the future at a rate below 1 percent, the present value of the gasoline purchased is less than the price of the car. I doubt that there are many new vehicles for which the expert statement is true, even if gas prices rise permanently far above the current price. I do wish so-called “experts” knew the basics of Econ 1.
From a reader in Annandale, Va., named Christopher Galen, who earlier sent in his daughter’s third-grade economics quiz (never too young to start!), comes this pricing quirk:
That’s right: the cost per unit is cheaper on the smaller version, which isn’t the kind of pricing we’re accustomed to in this supersize-me era. (For an interesting related read, see “Does Food Marketing Need to Make Us Fat?” and a Forbes summary of same.) As Christopher writes:
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I’m passing along a photo I took Friday at one of the state-run ABC liquor stores in Fairfax, Va. … Neither [bottle] was on sale, and it contrasts with most other liquor offerings, where larger product offerings tend to have a lower unit cost.
Which led me to wonder — and no, I had not done any in-store sampling — is this simply the counterintuitive marketing strategy of a state-run enterprise? Is the store trying to discourage excessive alcohol consumption by making smaller product sizes less expensive?
Blog reader Becky Roser sent an interesting email recently:
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My father pointed out something interesting the other day – almost no one runs out of gas anymore. When gas was $0.60 a gallon, he maintains it happened all the time. Now that it’s $4.00, you almost never see it. I have vague memories of my father running out of gas when I was very young, but I’ve never done it. What changed?
There’s a gas station near the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. that famously sells very expensive gas. Reporters flock there for the standard sky-high gas price story, and residents have long suspected that the station doesn’t actually want to sell gas.
According to a Washington Post article, those residents have the right idea. Apparently, the pricing puzzle at this gas station boils down to a dispute between two gas moguls trying to oust each other. Read More »
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made headlines last week when he suggested that high gas prices made mortgages unaffordable, causing the recent housing bubble to burst and sending the economy into recession. It may sound far-fetched, but it is precisely the theory that I and a pair of coauthors presented in a working paper released five days before Santorum’s remarks.
We are actually a bit more nuanced, arguing that unexpectedly high gas prices triggered the collapse of the housing market — igniting a fire fueled by easy credit, lax lending practices, and speculation. It is a provocative claim and one with broad implications, but it is also a claim supported by economic theory and empirical evidence.
The federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission asserted in its 2010 report that “it was the collapse of the housing bubble . . .that was the spark that ignited a string of events that led to a full-blown crisis in the fall of 2008.” And a broad, if not unanimous, consensus among economists suggests that the ongoing economic malaise was induced by a financial crisis caused by the housing crisis. Relatively less well-understood is what caused the housing crisis in the first place. Read More »
It got surprisingly little press coverage given the degree to which it will affect our lives (thanks, pesky world economic meltdown), but in case you missed it, the Obama administration recently worked out a compromise with the major automakers that will dramatically raise the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.
The new regulations mandate that the mix of new cars sold in the year 2025 must achieve about 54.5 miles per gallon (though if you read the fine print you’ll see that credits for various other green innovations mean that actual fuel economy will be more like 40 MPG.) For reference, the auto fleet currently on the road gets about 27 MPG. It’s a well-done agreement that will help avoid well-done citizens as global warming accelerates.
Before proceeding, let me note that I am strongly in favor of this policy. The problem of excessive fossil fuel use in transportation is multidimensional: if the issue of global warming doesn’t move you, the thought of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad using our own hard-earned dollars to tweak our geopolitical noses should.
However, it is worth noting that raising CAFE standards is what political scientists and economists call a “second-best” solution; we could be doing considerably better if we thought all of this through more clearly. Read More »