Friday, November 9, 2018

Carbon Tax

Source: Seattle Times
"The carbon tax is dead; long live the carbon tax" is the headline of Tyler Cowen's Bloomberg column on the failed (again) Washington State carbon tax.  And rather decisively, per the picture on the left.

"Maybe its failure on the ballot in Washington state will inspire economists to come up with better arguments" challenges the subhead. I can't resist.

The key question for a carbon tax is, what do you get in return? What do you do with the money? Washington's carbon tax would have, according to the Seattle Times,
It would have taken effect in 2020, rising year after year to finance a multibillion-dollar spending surge intended to cut Washington greenhouse-gas emissions. The initiative reflected proponents’ faith that an activist government can play a key role in speeding up a transition to cleaner fuels.
The fee would have raised more than $1 billion annually by 2023, with spending decisions to be made by a governor-appointed board as well as the state’s utilities
Well, perhaps the voters of Washington State were not so much against a carbon tax per se, but had less than full faith that a large increase in green boondoggle spending by Washington State government was a good idea. They need only to look south at California's high speed train to see cost-benefit analysis at work in dollars per ton of carbon saved.

And in fact it violates the whole idea of a carbon tax. The point of a carbon tax is to give people and businesses an incentive to figure out their own ways to cut carbon emissions. The whole point is not to fund big government projects. If you want to fund big government projects, you do it out of the broadest based and fairest tax you can find.

As Tyler suggested,
But maybe it’s time for a change in tactics. These new approaches might start with the notion that we can address climate change without transferring more money from voters to politicians.
Here are three ideas:

Idea 1: One answer is obvious: a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Use the carbon tax to offset other taxes. Tyler anticipates this with
The economist can respond, correctly, that a carbon tax will ease the path to greener outcomes, and that other taxes can be cut as recompense if necessary. But it seems right now there is not enough trust for such a grand bargain to be struck. 
Perhaps. But if the carbon tax were coupled with an explicit reduction in other taxes, it might help to convince people. If carbon taxes were coupled with elimination of other taxes, it would help more. Taxes are like zombies. If you just lower the rates they tend to come back. If you eliminate them entirely, perhaps requiring referendum for their reinstatement, there can be more trust. Couple the carbon tax with elimination of, say, state property taxes, income taxes, or sales taxes.

And in the end we all know taxes must equal spending. You can convince voters there won't be more taxes if there isn't more spending. Advertising the carbon tax as a substitute for carbon spending; simultaneously eliminating green boondoggles, would help to seal the deal.

Idea 2: The Baker-Shultz plan, or Americans for Carbon Dividends, (previous blog post here) has another bright idea: Send the proceeds back to the voters. Write everyone a nice check. This ensures that the money doesn't go to boondoggles, and gives every voter a stake in keeping the scheme going. It is highly progressive, which Democrats should like.

I had a similar idea a while ago: Rather than a tax, give each American a right to, say x tons of carbon emissions that they can sell on a carbon market. That also gives everyone an incentive to vote for the system. And it states the issue squarely. You, a voter, are having your air polluted. You have a right to collect on that damage. It makes it clear that carbon is a fee, a penalty, not a "tax." The point is to disincentivize the use of carbon, not to raise revenue for the government to spend. "Tax" is a loaded word in American culture and politics. Carbon rights takes the whole discussion away from "tax."

Idea 3: Lastly, one could pair the carbon tax and fee with a trade: A hefty fee, in return for elimination of all the other carbon subsidies and regulations. To those who don't believe in climate change: ok, but our government is going to do all sorts of crazy stuff. Let's cut out the rot and just pay a simple fee instead. No more electric car subsidies -- $15 k from taxpayers to each Tesla owner in Palo Alto -- HOV lanes, windmill subsidies, rooftop solar mandates, washing machines that don't wash clothes anymore (hint: do NOT buy any washing machine built since Jan 1 2018), and so on and so forth.

I think on the left the strategy has been to ramp up climate hysteria: if we just yell louder and demonize opponents more, the voters will buy it. No matter how much of a problem you think climate is, let's admit that's not working. In part the claims are now so over the top that everyone can tell it's gone too far. No, the way to put out fires in California is not to build a high speed train.

When, in the name of science the IPCC writes things like this -- right up front in the executive summary --
D3.2. ...For example, if poorly designed or implemented, adaptation projects in a range of sectors can increase... increase gender and social inequality... adaptations that include attention to poverty and sustainable development (high confidence).  
D6. Sustainable development supports, and often enables, the fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations that help limit global warming to 1.5°C. ... in conjunction with poverty eradication and efforts to reduce inequalities (high confidence).... 
D6.1. Social justice and equity are core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways that aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C... 
D7.2. Cooperation on strengthened accountable multilevel governance that includes non-state actors such as industry, civil society and scientific institutions, coordinated sectoral and cross-sectoral policies at various governance levels, gender-sensitive policies.... (high confidence). 
D7.4. Collective efforts at all levels, ... taking into account equity as well as effectiveness, can facilitate strengthening the global response to climate change, achieving sustainable development and eradicating poverty (high confidence)
You can't blame the suspicious Washington State voter from wondering if perhaps a larger agenda isn't being financed here.

There is a sensible middle. Voters who want to do something about carbon, but not finance massive boondoggles or a collectivist progressive agenda. Environmentalists who want to do something about carbon that actually will work. Skeptics who understand, as long as we're going to so something, let's do it efficiently via a carbon fee rather than at massive cost as we are doing now.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

Europe's Banks

My visit to Europe resulted in many interesting conversations. There was a stark contrast between the complex regulatory vision of formal presentations and papers, and the lunch and coffee discussion reflecting experience of people involved in actually regulating banks. They seemed to be quite frustrated by the state of things. Disclaimer: this is all completely unverified gossip, and remembered through a fog of jet lag. If commenters have better facts, I'm hungry to hear them.

Risk weights are ungodly complex, and not many people actually understand them, or the layers of buffers and how they are applied.

Risk weights are suspiciously low. Big banks are allowed to use their own models, calibrated on 10 years of data. That means the data have, now, 10 years of stable growth and very low default. Look, say the banks, our investments are nearly risk free.

"Micro" regulators who look at the specifics of an individual bank are prone to offset the "systemic" and "macro-prudential" efforts. Look, say the banks, we have to fulfill all these macro-prudential rules, give us a break. Regulators do.

The financial regulatory community has been preoccupied with writing reports about one thing after another. Meanwhile, the elephant remains in the room:  Italy may default or leave the euro.

Italian banks remain stuffed with Italian government bonds. I learned some new words for this: a "doom loop." If the government defaults, the banks go with it.  Some smaller foreign banks still have large investments in Italian bonds. Another new word: "Moral suasion," governments encouraging banks to buy a lot of their bonds.  I imagine the Godfather had more colorful words for it. On the other hand, Italian banks are reportedly happy for the moment, since as long as Italy doesn't actually default, they make a bundle from high interest rates. Government debt is still treated with low or no risk weights.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

State of thought on financial regulation

I'm at a conference on "Financial cycles and regulation" at the Deutsche Bundesbank. Beyond the individual papers, I find the conversation interesting.

Groups of researchers develop a common language and a common set of assumptions. This is productive -- to push a research frontier we have to agree on a few basic ideas, rather than argue about basics all the time. I, as an outsider, parachute in, and learn as much what the shared assumptions are, as I do about particular points in elaboration of the program.

Here,  it is pretty much taken for granted that there is such a thing as a "financial cycle." It's in the conference title, after all! That means a "cycle" of credit expansion, usually "unwarranted," "excessive," or an "imbalanced," followed by a bust. It is also agreed that it is the job of financial regulators to manage this "cycle."

Monday, November 5, 2018

Kotlikoff on the Big Con

In preparing some talks on the financial crisis, 10 years later, I ran across a very nice article, The Big Con -- Reassessing the "Great" Recession and its "Fix" by Larry Kotlikoff. (Here, if the first link doesn't work.) 

Larry is also the author of Jimmy Stewart is Dead – Ending the World's Ongoing Financial Plague with Limited Purpose Banking, from 2010, which along with Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig's The Bankers' New Clothes is one of the central works outlining the possibility of equity-financed banking and narrow deposit-taking, and how it could end financial crises forever at essentially no cost.

Larry points out that the crisis was, centrally a run. He calls it a "multiple equilibrium."  Financial institutions have promised people they can have their money back in full, at any time, but they have invested that money in illiquid and risky assets. When people all do that at the same time, the system fails. Such a run is inherently unpredictable. If you know it's happening tomorrow, you run to get your money out and it happens today.

This is a common view echoed by many others, including Ben Bernanke. What's distinctive about Larry's essay is that he pursues the logical conclusion of this view. If the crisis was, centrally, a run, all the other things that are alluded to as causes of the crisis are not really central.  Short-term debt, run-prone liabilities are gas in the basement. Just what causes the spark, how big the firehouse is, are not central, as without gas in the basement the spark would not cause a fire.

Larry puts it all together nicely by starting with the 2011 Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report:
"There was an explosion in risky subprime lending and securitization, an unsustainable rise in housing prices, widespread reports of egregious and predatory lending practices, dramatic increases in household mortgage debt, and exponential growth in financial firms’ trading activities, unregulated derivatives, and short-term “repo” lending markets, among many other red flags. Yet there was pervasive permissiveness; little meaningful action was taken to quell the threats in a timely manner. "
Larry then takes apart each of these non-culprits, as below.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Cross subsidies and monopolization, explained

I found a beautiful, clear, detailed, fact-based, and devastating explanation of how forced cross-subsidies, monopolized markets, and lack of competition conspire to strangle the American health care system.

No, this was not on some goofy libertarian website. It was in the official Voter Information Guide, for the ultra-progressive state of California, authored by "the legislative analyst." Whether the analyst is a secret libertarian struggling to get the word out, or simply that this is so much the way of doing things in California that nobody notices the scandal of it all, I do not know.

Starting on p. 62, with my emphasis
911 EMERGENCY MEDICAL TRANSPORTATION

Ambulances Provide Emergency Medical Care and Transportation. When a 911 call is made for medical help, an ambulance crew is sent to the location. ... (Ambulances also provide nonemergency rides to hospitals or doctors’ offices when a patient needs treatment or testing.)

Private Companies Operate Most Ambulances. ...  State law requires ambulances to transport all patients, even patients who have no health insurance and cannot pay. ... 
Commercial Insurance Pays More for Ambulance Trips Than Government Insurance Pays. The average cost of an ambulance trip in California is about $750. Medicare and Medi-Cal pay ambulance companies a fixed amount for each trip. Medicare pays about $450 per trip and Medi-Cal pays about $100 per trip. As a result, ambulance companies lose money transporting Medicare and Medi-Cal patients. Ambulance companies also lose money when they transport patients with no insurance. This is because these patients typically cannot pay for these trips. To make up for these losses, ambulance companies bill patients with commercial insurance more than the average cost of an ambulance trip. On average, commercial insurers pay $1,800 per trip, more than double the cost of a typical ambulance ride.
Not stated, just why do commercial insurers put up with this? The answer is, that you need government approval to run an insurance company in California, and an insurer who said "we're not paying for that" won't be allowed to do business in California.

Also not stated, just what happens to you if you don't have health insurance but actually are the type who pays your bills? Good luck.
THE EMERGENCY AMBULANCE INDUSTRY

Counties Select Main Ambulance Providers. County agencies divide the county into several zones. The ambulance company that is chosen to serve each zone has the exclusive right to respond to all emergency calls in that area.
If you want to know why there is no competition in the 911 ambulance industry, now you know. I don't know about private, non-911 ambulances. Is this all just exploiting the convenience of 911? Can you get a competitively priced ambulance ride if you know who to call?
The company generates revenue by collecting payments from patients’ insurers. In exchange, the ambulance company pays the county for the right to provide ambulance trips in that area. The county typically chooses the ambulance company through a competitive bidding process....
So cash strapped counties are in on the business of fleecing insurance companies, and through them, people and businesses who pay premiums.