Archives for subsidies



A 12-Step Program for Fuel Subsidy-aholics

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 »



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. Read More »



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. Read More »



Solar Subsidies

We are installing over 30 solar panels on our roof. The City of Austin currently offers a rebate up to $15,000 of 60 percent of the cost, and the federal government gives a 30 percent credit on the remainder.  With those subsidies the rate of return on our own investment is 17 percent, making this is a superb deal for us.

A neighbor in the Netherlands has 4 solar panels on his roof, a strangely small number.  I asked why.  His answer:  The Dutch government pays up to €1500 if you install a solar installation.  Each solar panel costs him €450, with a fixed cost of about €200 for the installation. Thus his average rate of return on his 4 panels is about 25 percent, a great investment.  Read More »



Could It Be That U.S. Farm Policy Isn’t Making Us Fatter?

Leaders of the food reform movement insist on a wholesale remaking of U.S. agriculture, blaming government policy for industrial farming that supposedly adds food miles to our diets and inches to our waistlines. But their solution, a system of local “foodsheds,” wouldn’t save on greenhouse gas emissions and may well be worse for the environment, an argument advanced by economists here and elsewhere. Now it also seems that the federal farm program blamed for worsening obesity has actually kept us skinnier. 

That is the finding of agricultural economists Bradley Rickard, Abigail Okrent, and Julian Alston, who report (ungated) in Health Economics that “agricultural policies have discouraged food consumption and mitigated the effects of other factors that have encouraged obesity.” Read More »



Freakonomics Quorum: Can Amtrak Ever Be Profitable?

Amtrak’s ridership and revenue has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years, and 2011 set a new ridership record with 30.2 million passengers, and $1.9 billion in ticket revenue. But, even though it took in $1.42 billion from Congress last year, it still manages to lose $1 billion annually. This is hardly a new development. Amtrak has a long and storied history of functioning at a loss despite government subsidies.

So, as we enter what appears to be a new era (maybe?) of government austerity, it seems worth asking if Amtrak can ever turn a profit without government help. We rounded up some people who pay attention to this issue and asked for their ideas to fix Amtrak, if it can be fixed at all. Read More »



Is There a Rooftop Solar Bubble? And Is It About to Burst?

Government efforts to boost affordability and expectations of unsustainably high investment returns generated a booming market destined to crash.

I’m talking, of course, about the market for rooftop solar, which has grown exponentially in recent years.

Most people are aware of the government subsidies that offset 30 percent or more of the installation cost of commercial and residential rooftop solar—more than $10,000 for a typical solar home in California. Less known is that those up-front savings, as big as they are, still aren’t enough to generate the double-digit investment returns that solar promoters promise. In fact, for residential solar panels to pay for themselves over their 20-25-year lifespans, households and businesses must receive a second, hidden subsidy for their solar electricity generation that is far too high to be justified by economic fundamentals, and that cannot be sustained in the long run. In California, some residential solar electricity fetches a price nearly four times its energy value. Read More »



The Texas Tax Holiday: A Business Subsidy Even a Kid Can See Through

The 13-year-old grandson and his 11-year-old sister are discussing the Texas tax holiday—for one weekend in August there will be no sales tax on school-related items. The grandson says stores will cut prices to compete for customers. The granddaughter, already an inveterate shopper, says no: With the tax holiday there will be so many customers that the stores will be able raise prices.

While prices won’t rise compared to the previous weekend, the granddaughter seems to understand that an inelastic demand means the incidence of (gain from) the tax cut will be on the sellers—the customers are unlikely to get much of a bargain. A subtle, Texas-style subsidy to business; but one that even an 11-year-old can see through!