Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Greens and the Subsidy Game

Some of the usual suspects are enjoying an interval of (perhaps premature?) grave-dancing this weekend over the (alleged) corpse of green energy policy.  Here's Greg Mankiw (of course) and here's Mark Perry (of course) and here's Walter Mead who lets loose:
There may be a dumber mass movement in the country than the fuzzy minded sentimentalists of the great green herd,but it isn’t easy to figure out which mass movement that would be.
...which strikes me as a bit rich for one who seems to fancy himself a gentleman of the old school (and one who betrays a weakness for opera and fish).   Still, I confess to a bit of ambivalence here because narrowly, I'm in sympathy: green subsidies probably were (or "are") a misguided and overhyped idea--unlikely at best to achieve their objective and inevitably vulnerable to corruption or outright perversion by insiders ready to scoop dollars off the table wherever they find them.

So far, fine, but wouldn't this be a grand opportunity to morph these complaints into a more general assault on market perversion?   Grant that each of my chosen commentators may offer some perfunctory feints in that direction (and Perry is first-rate on the farce of farm subsidies).  But no one of them so far seems willing or able to face up to the broader issue: that the primary purpose of government seems more to be the lining of pockets of thee oligarchs.  Mead says "isn’t easy to figure out" who is dumber or more fuzzy minded than the greens.  Well, how about all of us who let ourselves get victimized by the public-private cartels who do such a splendid collective job of impairing the general welfare?

They could start, for example with this Citizens for Tax Justice chart of who squeezes what out of our tax system.  Wthout looking, can you guess who is at the top?  If you said "big energy" and "finance," you wouldn't be far wrong.  I'm especially impressed that "industrial machinery" weighs in with a tax rate of negative 13.5 percent (ironically, "health care" --one of our supposed "successes" --weigh in with tax rates among the highest).

The idea that government is a plaything of the well-connected is hardly new, although it seems to be gaining a kind of traction lately that I haven't noticed for a long time.
Still, or all the useful particular examples, we still tend to talk in terms of "public" v "private" as if we understood the category boundaries.   But if the connectors and the connected are part of a unified ecosystem, the old-fashioned category lines don't seem to offer much help.

Addendum:  Here, by the way, may be one more field in which my goodbuddy Michele Bachmann may be closer to the truth than her adversaries want to credit.  She's catching hoots of derision this morning for saying that America should be more like "free market" China, where people do their own saving for their own retirement.  But where, exactly, is she wrong?  If she had added "plus a ring-fenced ruling-class that drains national wealth for its own private gain," her picture might have been more complete--and might be said to describe large chunks of the rest of the world, as well.

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