Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why Sustainability Standards for Biofuel Production Make Little Economic Sense

Why Sustainability Standards for Biofuel Production Make Little Economic Sense. By Harry de Gorter and David R. Just
Cato, October 7, 2009

The federal "sustainability standard" requires ethanol to emit at least 20 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than gasoline. Recent rulings by California and the Environmental Protection Agency, however, have cast doubt on the methodology of the sustainability calculus and whether those standards are being met. We show that the methodological debate is misplaced because sustainability standards for ethanol are, by definition, illogical and ineffective. Moreover, those standards divert attention from the contradictions and inefficiencies of ethanol import tariffs, tax credits, mandates, and subsidies, all of which exist whether ethanol is sustainable or not.

Ethanol is sustainable by definition. The CO2 sequestered by growing corn is exactly offset by the CO2 emissions that follow from burning the fuel in a car. The same observation applies to, say, consuming bourbon made from corn, but ethanol can replace energy — bourbon cannot. Hence, any sustainability standard should be applied to all corn and other crop products, and not just ethanol.

Sustainability standards are based on "lifecycle accounting," in which ethanol is assumed to replace gasoline; but in fact, it may be replacing coal or other energy sources. Life-cycle accounting also fails to recognize that if incentives are given for ethanol producers to use relatively "clean" inputs (e.g., natural gas), the "dirtier" inputs (e.g., coal) that might otherwise have been used for the ethanol production will simply be used by other producers to make products that are not covered by the sustainability standard. Sustainability standards reshuffle who is using what inputs — with no net reduction in national emissions.

Finally, sustainability standards are discriminatory under World Trade Organization law and are unlikely to survive a legal challenge from ethanol producers abroad. The United States will not be able to rely on the World Trade Organization's exception for trade laws protecting the environment because of lax U.S. policies dealing with greenhouse gas emissions relative to its trading partners. Moreover, the imposition of U.S. tariffs on more climate-friendly ethanol produced abroad weakens any U.S. defense of ethanol sustainability standards under the WTO.

Full text:

Harry de Gorter and David R. Just are economists in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

Readout of the Presidents call and meeting with Iraqi President Talabani

Readout of the Presidents call and meeting with Iraqi President Talabani

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release October 6, 2009

Readout of the President’s call and meeting with Iraqi President Talabani

President Obama called President Talabani on October 5, and spoke with him at the White House on October 6 when he dropped in on President Talabani’s meeting with National Security Advisor General Jim Jones. The President conveyed appreciation for the leadership that President Talabani has shown in promoting national unity in Iraq and encouraged him to continue his efforts in this regard. The President conveyed to President Talabani support for Iraqi efforts to adopt an election law soon. He also reaffirmed that the United States remains committed to working with Iraq to promote security, political progress, and economic development as Iraqis take responsibility for their future. The two leaders expressed support for further economic cooperation, and highlighted the upcoming October 20-21 U.S.-Iraq Business and Investment Conference in Washington.

Cato: The Government Robbed Chrysler Creditors

The Government Robbed Chrysler Creditors. By Ilya Shapiro

In January 2009, Chrysler stood on the brink of insolvency. Purporting to act under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, the Treasury extended Chrysler a $4 billion loan using funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Still in a bad financial situation, Chrysler initially proposed an out-of-court reorganization plan that would fully repay all of Chrysler’s secured debt. The Treasury rejected this proposal and instead insisted on a plan that would completely eradicate Chrysler’s secured debt, hinging billions of dollars in additional TARP funding on Chrysler’s acquiescence.

When Chrysler’s first lien lenders refused to waive their secured rights without full payment, the Treasury devised a scheme by which Chrysler, instead of reorganizing under a chapter 11 plan, would sell its assets free of all secured interests to a shell company, the New Chrysler. Chrysler was thus able to avoid the “absolute priority rule,” which provides that a court should not approve a bankruptcy plan unless it is “fair and equitable” to all classes of creditors.

Cato joined the Washington Legal Foundation, Allied Educational Foundation, and George Mason law professor Todd Zywicki on a brief supporting the creditors’ petition asking the Supreme Court to review the transaction’s validity. We argue that the forced reorganization amounted to the Treasury redistributing value from senior, secured creditors to debtors and junior, unsecured creditors.

The government should not be allowed, through its own self-dealing, to hand-pick certain creditors for favorable treatment at the expense of others who would otherwise enjoy first lien priority. Further, a lack of predictability and consistency with regard to creditors’ expectations in bankruptcy will result in a destabilization of existing and future credit markets.

The Court will be deciding whether to hear the case later this fall. Thanks very much to Cato legal associate Travis Cushman for his help with the brief.

Libertarian: The major provisions of ObamaCare already have been tried. They've led to increased costs and reduced access to care

The Lesson of State Health-Care Reforms. By PETER SUDERMAN
The major provisions of ObamaCare already have been tried. They've led to increased costs and reduced access to care.
WSJ, Oct 07, 2009

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously envisioned the states serving as laboratories, trying "novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." And on health care, that's just what they've done.

Like participants in a national science fair, state governments have tested variants on most of the major components of the health-care reform plans currently being considered in Congress. The results have been dramatically increased premiums in the individual market, spiraling public health-care costs, and reduced access to care. In other words: The reforms have failed.

New York is exhibit A. In 1993, the state prohibited insurers from declining to cover individuals with pre-existing health conditions ("guaranteed issue"). New York also required insurers to charge those enrolled in their plans the same premium, regardless of health status, age or sex ("community rating"). The goal was to reduce the number of uninsured by making health insurance more accessible, particularly to those who don't have employer-provided insurance.

It hasn't worked out very well, according to a Manhattan Institute study released last month by Stephen T. Parente, a professor of finance at the University of Minnesota and Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. In 1994, there were just under 752,000 individuals enrolled in individual insurance plans, or about 4.7% of the nonelderly population. This put New York roughly in line with the rest of the U.S. Today, that percentage has dropped to just 0.2% of the state's nonelderly. In contrast, between 1994 and 2007, the total number of people insured in the individual market across the U.S. rose to 5.5% from 4.5%.

The decline in the number of people enrolled in individual insurance plans, the authors say, is "attributable largely to a steep increase in premiums" because of the state's regulations. Messrs. Parente and Bragdon estimate that repeal of community rating and guaranteed issue could reduce the price of individual coverage by 42%.

New York's experience with guaranteed issue and community rating is not unique. In 1996, similar reforms in Washington state preceded massive premium spikes in the individual market. Some premiums increased as much as 78% in the first three years of the reforms—or 10 times medical inflation—according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Health Services Research in 1999. Other results included a 25% drop in enrollment in the individual market, and a reduction in services offered. Within four years, for example, none of the state's major carriers offered individual insurance plans that included maternity coverage.

A 2008 analysis by Kaiser Permanente's Patricia Lynch published by Health Affairs noted that in addition to Washington and New York, the individual insurance markets in Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont "deteriorated" after the enactment of guaranteed issue. Individual insurance became significantly more expensive and there was no significant decrease in the number of uninsured.

Supporters of federal health-care reform argue that the problems associated with these regulations can be addressed with the addition of an individual mandate, which is part of every ObamaCare bill in Congress. This would require every individual to purchase health insurance.
Guaranteed issue alone, the argument goes, results in slightly more expensive premiums, which drives healthier individuals out of the risk pool, which in turn further drives up premiums. The end result is that many healthy people opt out, leaving a small pool of sick individuals with very high premiums. An individual mandate, however, would spread those premium costs across a larger, healthier population, thus keeping premium costs down.

The experience of Massachusetts, which implemented an individual mandate in 2007, suggests otherwise. Health-insurance premiums in the Bay State have risen significantly faster than the national average, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit health foundation. At an average of $13,788, the state's family plans are now the nation's most expensive. Meanwhile, insurance companies are planning additional double-digit hikes, "prompting many employers to reduce benefits and shift additional costs to workers" according to the Boston Globe.

And health-care costs have continued to grow rapidly. According to a Rand Corporation study this year, the growth now exceeds state GDP by 8%. The Boston Globe recently reported that state health-insurance commissioners are now worried that medical spending could push both employers and patients into bankruptcy, and may even threaten the system's continued existence.

Meanwhile, survey data from the Massachusetts Medical Society indicate that the state's primary-care providers are being squeezed. Family doctors report taking fewer new patients and increases in wait time.

Reform measures in other states have proven to be expensive duds. Maine's 2003 reform plan, Dirigo Health, included a government insurance option resembling the public option included in the House health-care bill. This public plan, "DirigoChoice," was supposed to expand care to all 128,000 of Maine's uninsured by 2009. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2007 uninsured rate remained roughly 10%—essentially unchanged. DirigoChoice's individual insurance premiums increased by 74% over its first four years—to $499 a month from $287 a month—according to an analysis of Dirigo data by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The cost of DirigoHealth to taxpayers so far has been $155 million.

Tennessee's plan for universal coverage, dubbed TennCare, fared even worse in the 1990s. The goal of the state-run public insurance plan was to expand coverage to the uninsured by reducing waste. But the costs of expanding coverage quickly ballooned. In 2005, facing bankruptcy, the state was forced to cut 170,000 individuals from its insurance rolls.

Despite these state-level failures, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing forward a slate of similar reforms. Unlike most high-school science fair participants, they seem unaware that the point of doing experiments is to identify what actually works. Instead, they've identified what doesn't—and decided to do it again.

Mr. Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.