It’s Not a Simple Choice!

Filed Under (Environmental Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jan 16, 2010

A lot of research in environmental economics is all about the choice of environmental policy: a pollution tax, an abatement subsidy, tradable permits, or some regulatory mandate.  Economists have made two primary distinctions.  One distinction is between a price instrument (like a tax or subsidy) and a quantity instrument (like a fixed number of permits, or nontradable quota).  It’s a bit esoteric, but the choice between those two categories depends on uncertainty about the cost of abatement, and the slope of the marginal abatement cost curve.

A different key distinction is between a market based instrument (like tax OR tradable permits), as opposed to command and control regulations (like quotas or technology requirements).   This distinction is not so esoteric: having a tax or permit price per unit of pollution provides incentives to abate pollution in all the cheapest ways, and therefore minimizes the cost of abatement.  In contrast, regulators may easily require forms of abatement that are much more expensive.  Estimates suggest that command and control regulation can be six times as expensive as using market based instruments.

The point of this blog, however, is that these choices are too simple.  They do not encompass actual policy choices that are not only more complicated, but that cannot even be so categorized.   The “tax” is usually not on pollution itself, but on gasoline or on a car.  Also, virtually every “reform” is a package, and should be considered as a package!  I’ve shown in earlier research that the combination of a subsidy to abatement plus a tax on output can be functionally equivalent to the ideal tax on pollution.

Another “combination” is in the European Union, where a cap-and-trade carbon permit system applies to about half the economy, including electricity generation and major industries, but which does not cover small industries, residences, and transportation.  So they are now considering a carbon tax for the “nontrading” sector.

And anything done in the United States is likely to be a hybrid.  The Congress seems to want a cap-and trade permit system, or at least to call it a cap-and-trade permit system.  But that variable price may have a ceiling, and it may have a floor.  At the extreme, in a hybrid system as the ceiling and floor get closer to each other, the system converges to the single price of a carbon tax.  In other words, it’s not really one or the other.

Despite the complications, it may be worth our while to think about the ideal combination of policies, not the choice among distinct alternatives.

An Expected Surprise: The Doubling of the PBGC’s Deficit

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Nov 17, 2009

Last Friday, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) announced that its deficit had doubled over the past year.  The PBGC is the government agency that insures defined benefit (DB) pension plans in the U.S.  While this doubling of the deficit was widely reported in the press, the only thing surprising about this announcement was that anyone was surprised by it.


Since the PBGC was created through the passage of ERISA in 1974, the basic design of the program has been fundamentally flawed.  As I have discussed in several papers, the PBGC fails to price this insurance properly, fails to provide adequate incentives for funding, and fails to provide adequate information to market participants.  As a result, DB plan sponsors have the incentive – and the legal right – to fund their pensions in a manner that imposes large future obligations on U.S. taxpayers.  (And as for the PBGC experts out there who will quickly point out that the PBGC is not funded by taxpayer dollars, I ask you only one question – given our experience of the past 15 months in which the U.S. government has not only bailed out government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie and Freddie, but also private sector companies such as G.M., do you really think Congress will let millions of pensioners lose their benefits when the PBGC runs out of money?)


Given that the program’s finances have been underwater for years, and given that numerous academics, think-tanks, and government policy experts such as the GAO and the CBO have all pointed out that the PBGC is on an unsustainable course, the latest numbers simply confirm what we already intuitively know – the PBGC’s finances are deteriorating rapidly.


Here are the facts as of September 30, 2009:

-         The PBGC had only $68.7 billion in assets to cover an estimated $89.8 billion in liabilities.

-         The PBGC “acquired” responsibility for an additional 144 plans during the year.

-         27 large plans – with liabilities of over $1.6 billion are now listed as “probably losses” on the PBGC’s balance sheet

-         The PBGC notes that “potential exposure to future pension losses from financially weak companies” is approximately $168 billion.


I do, of course, realize that it is difficult to get people exercised about this issue.  Even $168 billion, let alone $22 billion, no longer seems like a big number coming in a year after trillions have been spent on stimulus plans and TARP-like programs.  Nor does it seem large relative to the tens of trillions in unfunded liabilities facing Social Security or Medicare.  But $168 billion is still real money – even in Washington. 


What needs to change?  One useful first step would be to give the PBGC the authority to charge market-based premiums for the insurance it provides.  It is true that this might hasten the decline of DB plans in some sectors.  But I would submit that if making firms pay the true cost of their pensions means that they no longer find it attractive to offer them, then perhaps the efficient outcome is for them to end the plans before they dig the fiscal hole any deeper.

The True Size of Government

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Sep 25, 2009

In 2008, the federal government’s receipts were 17% of GNP, and its expenditures including transfer payments were 21.4% of GNP (implying the budget deficit was 4.4% of GNP).  If State and Local taxes and expenditures are added to those numbers, they become 30.5% and 35.2% of GNP, respectively.  For many reasons, however, government’s reach is wider than reflected in those numbers.  Government does not just spend its own tax revenue; it spends other people’s money as well.

For just one example, consider environmental regulations.  I have not seen a recent estimate of the total costs of environmental protection, so I will rely on some older numbers.  Note, however, than none of this discussion is meant to imply that the environment should not be protected!   Maybe protections should be more limited, or expanded.  The point is just that measured dollar expenditure by government does not accurately reflect its true size.

In “The Cost of Clean”, the U.S. EPA in 1990 estimated that the total private cost of required environmental protection was approximately $115 billion (in 1990 dollars) or 2.1% of GNP.  By the year 2000, they said the value could approach 2.8% of GNP.  If I assume the same rate of growth through 2008, then these private costs of environmental protection could be as high as 3.5% of GNP by 2008, a figure that would be $514.0 billion, or 21.6% of non-defense federal expenditures.

This cost of environmental protection comes mainly in the form of mandates imposed on firms.  Examples of mandates include the forced adoption of best practices pollution abatement technology or binding emission rates (e.g. limits on pollution per unit of output).  However, these mandates are just like taxes in two respects.  First, the government imposes these costs on private firms.  Second, the mandates provide “public goods” like clean air and water that we all can enjoy.

In other words, if these costs to private firms were converted into an equivalent tax program with direct government expenditures, then U.S. discretionary spending would appear to be 21.6% higher.  These expenditures do not appear explicitly in the federal budget, so they merit further study.  How do we divide our limited resources between private or public consumption, versus private or public investment?  How much of that environmental spending is in each category?  What are we getting for these outlays?  How can we measure the value of the improved environment?  Do these expenditures provide environmental benefits now, or are they investment in the future?

In order address these questions, a full “environmental budget” would need to show each cost, including the cost of complexity created by mandates.  In addition, some environmental protection programs are required by state and local governments (just like taxes).  Each of the programs has implicit transfers from one state to another, and from one income group to another (just like taxes).  Why are these programs not evaluated just like taxes?