Category Archives: Regulation

Understanding Your Electric Bill

Dominion's Brunswick power plant: a $1.3 billion rate "rider."

Dominion’s Brunswick power plant: a $1.3 billion rate “rider.”

by James A. Bacon

In 2009 Virginia enacted a law providing for the re-regulation of the electric power industry. There was a flurry of publicity surrounding the legislative process, then the media promptly forgot about it. Only with the sweeping mandates of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is compelling a massive re-engineering of Virginia’s electric power system, have reporters started to pay attention to how rates are set.

This morning John Ramsey with the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted the increasing importance of rate “riders,” also known as Rate Adjustment Clauses or RACs, in determining the rates electric consumers pay to Dominion Virginia Power, Appalachian Power Co., and local electric cooperatives. These clauses now account for nearly 9% of a Dominion customer’s monthly bill, he writes. And, I would add, they likely will account for a higher percentage in the future.

Your electric bill reflects three main components: the base rate, fuel costs, and riders. The base rate reflects the overall cost of operating the power company, excluding fuel costs. Fuel costs vary with market conditions; higher and lower costs are designed to flow through to rate payers. Riders cover new projects, most notably new power plants but also such initiatives as the hardening of the electric grid against threats like terrorism and sabotage.

Electric companies must submit these Rate Adjustment Clauses to the State Corporation Commission for approval. The SCC is not a rubber stamp. The commission recently rejected a Dominion propose to bury its most vulnerable power lines to reduce the incidence of power outages during bad weather.  (Boo! As one whose power goes out frequently, and for long periods of time, I thought it was a great idea.)

To understand how Virginia’s power companies respond to the challenge of EPA-mandated reductions in toxic emissions and CO2 emissions, it is critical to understand the incentives created by the rate structure. Writes Ramsey:

Although [Dominion’s] base rates provide for a regulated rate of return up to about 10 percent, the riders guarantee a 10 percent return. With the base rate frozen [under legislation enacted this year], new riders offer Dominion Virginia Power an opportunity to increase its profitability.

Dominion says the arrangement allows the company to recoup its investment in smaller chunks as it builds new plants, instead of waiting until construction is complete and hitting customers with bigger increases. It also allows for easier, and presumably cheaper, financing, which also benefits customers.

But Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, says that Virginians will continue to see rate increases despite the freeze in the “base” rate. “We kept trying to tell the legislature that [freezing base rates] didn’t set a ceiling. It set a floor.”

Ramsey also quotes Albert Carr, who teaches a course in utility regulations at the Washington and Lee University law school, who thinks the riders make sense. “Going the rider route will give the regulator a much clearer focus on what amounts to additions to those base rates,” he says. “It eliminates some of the problems we’ve had in the past with regulation. You don’t have to take the whole car apart to fix the window.”

I’m not sure how well anyone outside of the SCC, the power companies, and a handful of utility and environmentalist lawyers really understand how Virginia’s electric rates work. Consumers certainly don’t. I don’t. I know a lot more than I did three months ago, but I’m still moving up the learning curve.

Even more opaque is how the structure for setting electric rates guides corporate strategy for building gas-fired and renewable power facilities, constructing new transmission lines, and purchasing power from the regional PJM grid. As a generality, power companies will steer capital investment to projects that provide the highest risk-adjusted rate of return. Does Virginia’s current rate structure bias utility investment in certain types of projects over others? I’m trying to figure that out.

Student Debt and the Decline of New Business Formation

by James A. Bacon

Many are the ways in which burgeoning student debt — $1.2 trillion and rising — cripple the economy. On this blog we’ve discussed how debt delays family formation, housing purchases and consumer spending. Recent research from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Board also suggests that student debt dampens new business formation, an insight that ties into another line of inquiry on this blog: understanding the slow rate of job creation in the current economic cycle.

The engine of job creation in the U.S. economy is new business formation. The spawning of new businesses has experienced a long-term decline since 1978, but that decline has been particularly pronounced since 2005. In recent years more firms have exited the marketplace than have entered it, as seen in this Brookings Institution graph below, taken from “Declining Business Dynamism in the United States: A Look at States and Metros,” published in 2014. The numbers may have improved in the past two  years, but probably not enough to change the long-term picture.

firm_dynamism

I have argued on this blog that the massive wave of regulation enacted in the past six years has dampened the economic recovery by imposing large new costs on businesses. As the regulatory burden has increased, economies of scale have shifted in favor of larger firms which have the resources to deal with the regulations. Numerous industry sectors are consolidating: banking, hospitals and health insurance most visibly. Industry consolidation may be a factor in explaining the decline in overall net business formation but it only goes so far.

The Brookings data shows that the problem isn’t an accelerating death rate of businesses — the exit rate of firms from the economy has remained fairly stable since 1978 — it’s the dearth of business births. I would suggest that regulation has dampened new business formation by creating barriers to entry in many industries.

While I still hew to that view, I think there’s more to the story. There also is strong evidence that the surge in student debt — $1.2 trillion and rising — has depressed new business creation among young people.

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadephia

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadephia. (Click for larger image.)

The authors of the recently published Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia paper, “The Impact of Student Loan Debt on Small Business Formation,” has found a “significant and economically meaningful” negative correlation between geographic variation in student loan debt and net business formation for small firms of one to four employees. “Based on our model, an increase of one standard deviation in student debt reduced the number of businesses with one to four employees by 14% on average between 2000 and 2010.” (Please don’t ask me to define “standard deviation.” Here’s an an explanation.)

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (Click for larger image.)

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (Click for larger image.)

To launch a business, especially a small business, individuals need access to capital, the authors argue. Small businesses receive approximately 75% of this capital from banks in the form of loans, credit cards and lines of credit, which are contingent upon the borrower’s credit-worthiness. “Given the importance of an entrepreneur’s personal debt capacity in financing a startup business, personal debt that is incurred early in life and that restricts a person’s ability to take on future debt can have profound implications for growth in small businesses,” the study says.

The growth in student debt over the past decade has damaged the credit-worthiness of an entire demographic cohort: 17% of student loans are delinquent, and another 44% are not being repaid due to borrowers either still being in school or having received a repayment deferral or forbearance. Even students who are paying their debt on schedule find their credit worthiness downgraded.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial today, the Kauffman Foundation has found that new entrepreneurs ages 20 to 34 fell to 23% of self-starters in 2013, down from 35% in 1996.

The U.S. system of higher education may be creating the best educated generation in American history, but it may be the least entrepreneurial in decades.

As Virginians seek ways to reignite a state economy hobbled by the decline in federal spending and an eroding business climate, we need to give more attention to what it takes to stimulate new business formation. And that should entail taking a closer look at the link between higher ed and student debt, and the link between student debt and new business formation. All the state and federal “programs” designed to promote new business formation, I suspect, don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the rise in student indebtedness. Tackling student indebtedness gets us into a thicket of very complex issues that aren’t easily solved but that’s no excuse for failing to focus on what really matters.

Apex Encounters Headwinds in Botetourt Wind Project

by James A. Bacon

An interesting player is emerging in the Virginia renewable energy scene — Apex Clean Energy. The Charlottesville-based company has announced that it has erected two test towers for a proposed wind farm in Botetourt County to gather data about wind strength and frequency. The company has proposed constructing up to 25 wind turbines on a ridgeline about five miles east of Eagle Rock, according to news reports.

But the Rocky Forge project is encountering legal headwinds. A lawsuit filed a month ago sought to block the project on the grounds that “industrial turbines are known to catch fire, to collapse, emit audible and low frequency noise, cause shadow flicker and to throw ice from spinning blades in the wintertime,” reported the Roanoke Times. The lawsuit also noted that turbines kill birds and bats and destroy their habitat.

Dominion Virginia Power is running into similar obstacles in Tazewell County, where the energy giant faces stiff local opposition. The Tazewell County has proposed a zoning plan that would classify solar panels and wind turbines with other undesirable developments such as medical waste facilities that require a special permit.

For Apex Clean Energy, Rocky Forge is one of two wind power projects in Virginia. The facility would have a capacity of 80 megawatts, enough to power 20,000 houses. The expected completion date is 2017-2018, according to the company website. Another project, Pinewood Wind in Pulaski County, would have a capacity of 180 megawatts, enough to power 50,000 houses. All told, the company lists 53 projects in its portfolio, with the greatest concentration in the plains states of Texas and Oklahoma.

The company was founded in 2009 with the mission of building “a new kind of energy company.” The founders, who had sold their previous company, Greenlight Energy, to BP Alternative Energy, assembled a team of wind and solar energy professionals with skill sets that could originate projects, finance them, build them and manage them.

It’s not clear from the company website or news reports what the business model is for the Virginia wind farms. Among the possibilities: Purchase Power Agreements, in which a customer signs a contract to purchase a specified amount of energy from a project; project ownership in which Apex delivers a turn-key facility along with asset-management services over to a buyer; and a Structured Purchase Agreement, a long-term price agreement that allow companies to hedge against volatile fuel prices. Or Apex simply may sell electricity into the PJM electric bid, which supports a market for green energy.

A Plethora of Pipelines

pipeline_constructionFour companies are talking about building gas pipelines through Virginia. How many are needed — and who decides?

by James A. Bacon

How many natural gas pipelines does Virginia need? A lot of people are asking that question as two projects — the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline — are actively developing routes between the Marcellus shale gas fields to the northwest and fast-growing markets to the south. Meanwhile, the Williams Companies, owner of the giant Transco pipeline, is talking up the Appalachian Connector, and Columbia Gas Transmission says it might upgrade an existing pipeline terminating in Northern Virginia.

All told, the four projects would add a capacity of 6.8 billion cubic feet per day, or roughly 200 billion cubic feet monthly. While much, if not most, of that gas would be destined for markets outside Virginia, that’s still a tremendous amount of capacity. By way of comparison, existing pipelines deliver to Virginia between 20 billion and 60 billion billion cubic feet monthly, depending on the time of year.

The question of how much is too much has become an urgent one as landowners in the path of the proposed pipelines resist survey crews from entering their property and vow to resist acquisition of their land by eminent domain. To acquire right of way using eminent domain, they say, companies must articulate a compelling public need to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). While there may be a need for some new pipeline capacity, they contend, it’s hard to justify all four projects.

“We’ve got a big infrastructure build-out proposed,” says Greg Buppert, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), who is tracking the issue. “My suspicion is that some but not all of this capacity is needed. There is even a possibility that existing infrastructure can meet the need.”

But some say the market is self-limiting. Pipeline companies won’t spend billions of dollars adding new capacity unless they get enough long-term contracts to ensure they can pay for a project. If there is insufficient demand to support all four pipeline projects, all four pipelines will not get built.

For decades, Virginia has relied mainly upon two companies, the Williams Companies and Columbia Gas, to deliver gas to the state. Williams operates the high-capacity Transco pipeline — energy journalist Housley Carr refers to it as “the gas-transportation equivalent of an eight-lane highway”– connecting the Gulf of Mexico gas fields with New York by way of Virginia and other Atlantic Coast states. Columbia Gas runs a parallel pipeline highway west of the Appalachias, which serves a multi-state distribution system that feeds into Virginia via West Virginia.

Traditionally, most gas from both pipelines has come from the Gulf of Mexico. But fracking has turned North American energy economics topsy turvy. Gas fields tapping the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and Ohio are reputed to contain as much natural gas as Saudi Arabia. Marcellus gas is abundant and cheap, and gas pipeline companies have been scrambling to develop new markets, mostly in the U.S., but also for foreign markets by means of Liquefied Natural Gas.

The explosion in supply coincides with a surge in demand, especially from electric power companies. In two major waves of regulation in recent years the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated power companies to reduce their toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants and then, with final rules issued early August, to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 32% nationally. In both cases, utilities are shifting en masse from coal to natural gas. While renewable sources such as solar and wind power are expected to gain electricity market share, industry officials say they must be backed up by gas generators to take up the slack when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, so demand growth for renewables actually supports demand growth for natural gas. Meanwhile, gas companies foresee a kick in long-term demand from a growing population and economy, especially among manufacturing operations seeking to tap some of the world’s lowest cost energy and chemical feedstock.

“Virginia is in need of new natural gas transmission that can get these new reserves to the parts of Virginia that need it the most,” says Christina Nuckols, deputy communications director for Governor Terry McAuliffe. “Hampton Roads is considered an energy cul-de-sac where natural gas capacity constraint has been an issue for years.  Particular counties in central and southern Virginia also have reported on numerous occasions that they lose out on manufacturing-related economic development opportunities almost immediately because they cannot provide access to natural gas.

“With any new market opportunity, there are going to be a number of companies looking to find success,” she says. “All of these proposed pipeline projects are recognition that Virginia is in need of additional natural gas capacity and the infrastructure to provide it.  It remains to be seen which projects will get approval from the appropriate entities.”

Here are the major projects proposed for Virginia: Continue reading

The Next Battle in Virginia’s Sharing Economy: Airbnb

airbnbby James A. Bacon

The fracas in Virginia over Uber and Lyft has settled down. The two “transportation network companies” have submitted to regulation requiring background and safety checks of drivers, and nearly 19,000 vehicles have registered with the state, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The next legal front in the sharing economy is likely to focus on Airbnb, the company that enables individuals to rent out houses, rooms and apartments for short-term lodging.

The problem, according to the Commonwealth Institute, is that Airbnb does not collect and remit the lodging taxes on these rentals, meaning that local governments could be losing millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Thousands of Virginians have signed up on Airbnb to offer accommodations to paying visitors. A check this morning showed 692 rentals being offered in the City of Richmond as the UCI Road World Cycling Championships approaches, 288 rentals in beach destination Virginia Beach, 489 rentals in the college town of Charlottesville and more than 1,000 rentals each in Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria near the nation’s capital. Charges can vary from $37 per night for a “very, very rustic cabin by the river” in Hinton… to $225 per night for a three-bedroom house in Blacksburg during football weekends… to $2,000 per night for a three-bedroom house in Old Town Alexandria.

The state requires hotels, motels and campgrounds to collect a sales tax of 5.3% to 6% for reservations of less than 90 days. Many localities also collect a local occupancy tax, which in the case of Richmond, Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield amounts to 8% to cover debt from building the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Other communities use the occupancy tax to support local convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) and tourism initiatives.

Airbnb is not collecting taxes in Virginia. According to the Commonwealth Institute, the company suggests that renters charge and remit occupancy taxes on their own. But the taxes can be confusing for casual Airbnb hosts to understand and localities are not set up to monitor and enforce collections on casual rentals.

Earlier this year, however, Airbnb reached an agreement with Washington, D.C., to collect and remit occupancy taxes on all of its rentals in the District. That follows agreements in Portland, San Francisco and Wake County (Raleigh, N.C.) to do the same.

Bacon’s bottom line: I can see why the hospitality industry is up in arms over Airbnb. Airbnb rentals under-price hotels and motels offering comparable accommodations but they don’t contribute to the collective efforts of CVBs to market and promote their metropolitan region as a destination. Forcing casual renters to handle the paperwork would be a deal breaker for many, but Airbnb’s administrative systems should be able to execute the task of remitting taxes with little difficulty. I agree with the Commonwealth Institute that the Commonwealth of Virginia and its localities should seek the same kind of tax-collection deal that North Carolina and several of its jurisdictions have struck with the company. Create a level playing field and may the best competitors win!

Next Step for Offshore Wind

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

Alstom wind turbine like that contemplated for installation off Virginia Beach.

Earlier this year Dominion Virginia Power received a bid for building two experimental offshore wind turbines that exceeded internal cost projections by more than half, making the proposed project unlikely to win State Corporation Commission approval. In a July stakeholder meeting, DVP executives laid out their analysis of what went wrong. Now stakeholders will convene in three “problem solving cohorts” to determine how to bring down the cost of the project.

According to Nancy Lowe, with the Virginia Center for Consensus Building, which Dominion has engaged to lead the process, the groups will be broken down as follows:

  1. “Contract process and logistics – horizontal vs. vertical contracting, how to cut costs and balance risk through implementation and execution strategies, including multiple contracts versus a single contract, etc.
  2. Technology – focus on  balancing the cost issue with the amount of innovative technology to be developed and explore other technology issues.
  3. Policy Issues – determine the laws or regulations that could be changed to improve the chances of success. Determine the likelihood of being successful in achieving the modification noted, identify and quantify benefits to Virginia ratepayers.”

The stakeholders will not address the issue of cost sharing. Finding other groups to help shoulder the cost of funding the project, which would demonstrate the efficacy of new technologies benefiting the wind power industry broadly, would best be pursued by “the facilitator,” i.e. DVP, wrote Lowe in a communication to stakeholders.

Among the critical technologies to be demonstrated in this proposed pilot test are adaptations to the kind of hurricane-force winds that turbines are likely to encounter in the Atlantic Ocean. Without that technology, investing billions of dollars in an offshore wind farm might be too risky to win regulatory approval.

— JAB

Clean Power Plan: What Comes Next?

by James A. Bacon

I may be like the proverbial three-year-old playing with matches with this blog post, but as I decipher the Clean Power Plan, Virginia’s final CO2 emission goals should be fairly easy to attain — far easier than anyone was anticipating based upon the draft goals published last year.

According to the EPA’s “State at a Glance” document for Virginia, the Old Dominion can pick from one of two ways to determine its CO2 emission goals — pounds of CO2 emitted per megawatt of electric power generated or total tons of CO2 released by the electric power system. Let’s look at each in turn.

First, pounds of CO2 emissions per megawatt of energy produced:

virginia_co2_goals

Virginia is already on track for major CO2 reductions thanks to the retirement of several coal- and oil-fired power plants implemented in response to the EPA’s previous mandated reductions of toxic emissions. As the EPA “State at a Glance” profile of Virginia indicates, the state is projected to cut CO2 emissions from 1,477 pounds in 2012 to 959 pounds per megawatt-hour generated in 2020. That reduction exceeds EPA goals through 2029, and it falls short of the final 2030 goal by only 25 pounds, or 2.6%!

In other words, assuming they stay on their current course, Virginia’s power companies will have another ten years to devise a 2.6% reduction in carbon intensity over what they’re already planning.

Second, total CO2 emissions (in short tons):

co2_short_tons2

These goals would not require Virginia to make any changes at all. Indeed, the final 2030 goal for CO2 emissions is the same as the 2012 level! If Virginia’s power companies hew to current projections, they will exceed the final 2030 goal without any changes! If Virginia adopts this metric, the state won’t have to modify its electricity policy at all. So much for pushing through scads of new solar and wind plants!

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of key players in the Virginia debate got caught flat-footed. An hour after President Obama formally rolled out the plan, General Assembly Republicans issued a statement citing a $6 billion State Corporation Commission cost estimate, based upon the cost of achieving the far tougher draft goals,  in criticism of the plan. Stated House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford:

The E.P.A. rule released today is not only another example of an overreaching federal government, but more importantly it will drive up energy costs for hardworking Virginians and further damage our already struggling economy.

Oh, really?

Environmentalists seemed to be caught equally off guard. The Southern Environmental Law Center issued a press release just before Obama’s speech praising the plan for forcing CO2 cuts nationally. Senior Attorney Frank Rambo, leader of the organization’s Clean Energy and Air program, released the following statement regarding the regional impact:

The release of the Clean Power Plan today is a milestone event for the country, but for states in the Southeast the real work now begins. We need to make smart choices about how we can meet these targets, which will improve public health by reducing pollution while also providing the opportunity for new jobs through clean energy investments.

Real work? What real work?

Even today, environmentalists had not absorbed the significance of the new target. In a fund-raising letter, the League of Conservation Voters referred to the Clean Air Act as “good news here in Virginia.”

I can’t imagine that Virginia environmentalists will be happy when it sinks in that modified targets lock the status quo into place.

The big question at this point is which metric does Virginia choose? I’m not sure who does the choosing, but I would expect environmental groups to lobby for the “rate” metric, which requires at least modicum of additional tightening for Virginia, and I would expect the McAuliffe administration, which has a stated goal of fighting climate change, to go along because it will cause little economic pain. However, unless closer analysis by the experts finds otherwise — and I’m totally open to the possibility that I may be overlooking something — it appears that Virginia  has enacted nearly all of the changes it needs.

Update: I stand corrected. The final CO2 emission targets represent a 37% reduction for Virginia. For details, see “Yes, Virginia, the EPA Is Still Cracking Down on You.” I also take back the snarky things I said about Bill Howell’s quote and Frank Rambo’s quote. Sorry, guys, I was wrong.

Comments on a Book Review

Yesterday, on this site, a book entitled “Ethics and Economics ,” authored by      Mr. Wight,was discussed. The review raised a few points that were a bit unclear to me.

One of the points made was that the government lacks knowledge about society. This is a bit surprising since the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Commerce Department, and the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve are probably the largest suppliers of raw economic data in the United States.  If, as a review of the book states,  legislators often act in a manner contrary to the public interest, perhaps a review of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United Case, which allows for virtually unlimited campaign contributions should be in the cards.

Like most conservative analysis, Mr. Wight ignores the basic concept of externalities.  When the state improves the highway system, this helps all by providing economic growth via ease of transportation.  When an entity pollutes, passing on the cost of cleanup to the wider society, this is a negative externality.  A purely market-driven economic policy will not provide positive for the wider society.

An examination of the 2008-2009 financial crisis demonstrates the folly of totally unregulated markets.  The institution at the core of the debacle was the insurance giant A.I.G. and its subsidiary A.I.G. Financial Products.

A.I.G.F.P. was the largest player in the credit default swap market.  Credit Default Swaps are insurance written to guarantee the principle of a bond.  A yearly premium is a percentage of the interest paid on the bond.  A.I.G.F.P. was a leader in insuring mortgage-backed securities.  This market was totally unregulated and unlike most insurance products and derivatives written against currencies or S&P movements, no reserves were required.  The A.I.G.F.P. was in effect renting the rating of the parent company to issue unreserved for insurance.

A.I.G.F.P. was closely monitored by then-C.E.O. Hank Greenberg until he was forced out in an accounting scandal brought on by Elliott Spitzer then Attorney General of New York.  The charges were later dropped but without Greenberg’s oversight, A.I.G.F.P. ramped-up its business, and in the short run was a significant contributor to the company’s overall products.

When the housing market burst, payments were required to fund the credit default swaps written against defaulted mortgages.  Because no reserves had been required, and there was no regulatory oversight for that market, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was forced to bail-out the company to the tune of about US$180 billion.  Had the activities of A.I.G.F.P. been monitored in thee way Futures Exchanges and traditional insurance companies, the Great Recession and the recovery would have been less severe and costly.

Sometimes, the Government should play a role.

— Les Schreiber

Market Failure and Government Failure

ethics_and_economicsby James A. Bacon

Jon Wight, a business school professor at the University of Richmond, is a huge fan of Adam Smith, best known for his classic economic treatise, “The Wealth of Nations.” Wight thinks Smith is one of the greatest economists who ever lived, not as much on the grounds that he championed “free markets,” as many conservatives might think, as on the way he built his economic theories upon a platform of morals and ethics, as articulated in his earlier, lesser known work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Not surprisingly, Wight makes frequent references to Smith in his own, recently published book, “Ethics in Economics: an Introduction to Moral Frameworks,” in which he outlines a moral framework for understanding markets.

Wight, a friend of mine, argues that is impossible to disassociate markets from the cultural and moral context in which they are embedded. In one chapter, “Moral Limits to Markets,” he argues that not all human relationships can, nor should be, market relationships. Relationships between husband, wife and children, for instance, are not, and should not be, conducted in accordance with market rules. Similarly, he argues against price gouging in times of crisis, discrimination on the basis of race and the commercial transaction of human body parts (made all the more timely by the recent revelation of Planned Parenthood’s commerce in fetal tissue). At bottom, his book is an argument for social justice and a retort to the “modern welfare theory” school of economics that argues that voluntary transactions between willing buyers and sellers maximizes consumer preferences and economic welfare.

The book is an easy read, spiced with lots of contemporary allusions, of an incredibly abstract subject, and I urge Bacon’s Rebellion readers of a philosophical bent to buy it. The book advanced my thinking about the moral context of economics immeasurably. If you’re too cheap to buy the book, at least check out Wight’s “Economics and Ethics” blog here. He doesn’t always reach the same conclusions I do… well, let’s say he often reaches entirely different conclusions… but I like the way he thinks. He acknowledges the complexity and nuances of issues. He takes the trouble to understand the arguments of others even if, in the final analysis, he doesn’t agree with them.

To my mind, if there was one philosophical flaw to Wight’s book, it is this: While Wight does a masterful job of dissecting “market failures” — they are many, and they are real — and while he does acknowledge parenthetically that many government fixes to market failures do themselves have flaws, he doesn’t give the same level of attention to the “government failure” as he does to “market failure.”

That is a very lengthy and roundabout way to get to the subject of today’s post. A new Cato Institute paper by Chris Edwards, “Why the Federal Government Fails,” struck a chord precisely because Wight’s book had sensitized me to the issue of market failure and I had begun thinking that someone needs to categorize government failure in the systematic way. Just as Wight provides a taxonomy of market failure, Edwards provides a taxonomy of government failure.

I cannot say it better than Edwards himself in his executive summary:

Most Americans think that the federal government is incompetent and wasteful. Their negative view is not surprising given the steady stream of scandals emanating from Washington. Scholarly studies support the idea that many federal activities are misguided and harmful. A recent book on federal performance by Yale University law professor Peter Schuck concluded that failure is “endemic.”

What causes all the failures?

First, federal policies rely on top-down planning and coercion. That tends to create winners and losers, which is unlike the mutually beneficial relationships of markets. It also means that federal policies are based on guesswork because there is no price system to guide decisionmaking. A further problem is that failed policies are not weeded out because they are funded by taxes, which are compulsory and not contingent on performance.

Second, the government lacks knowledge about our complex society. That ignorance is behind many unintended and harmful side effects of federal policies. While markets gather knowledge from the bottom up and are rooted in individual preferences, the government’s actions destroy knowledge and squelch diversity.

Third, legislators often act counter to the general public interest. They use debt, an opaque tax system, and other techniques to hide the full costs of programs. Furthermore, they use logrolling to pass harmful policies that do not have broad public support. Continue reading

Will Virginia COPN Study Group Ask the Critical Questions?

Data source: Virginia Department of Health

Data source: Virginia Department of Health

by James A. Bacon

State Certificate of Public Need (COPN) programs come in many shapes and sizes across the United States. Fourteen states have abolished the health-care regulatory program entirely, while states that continue to regulate capital investments in health care facilities and high-end equipment vary widely in what they regulate.

Among states with COPN, Virginia regulates about 19 of 30 categories of medical services, placing it in the middle of the pack for regulatory intensity, according to a state-by-state comparison presented to Virginia’s COPN work group earlier this month. Virginia’s application fees are relatively modest, but the review process, at 190 days, is the longest in the country.

The work group is studying Virginia’s COPN law to determine if it needs reform, in light of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act and other changes in the medical marketplace. The justification for COPN when it was instituted nationally in Virginia in 1973 was that normal competitive processes did not work in health care. When hospitals and other providers added hospital beds and purchased high-tech equipment, they supposedly made sure that patients utilized them, which added to the run-up in health care costs.

However, critics of COPN argue that the cost-plus system for reimbursing providers, which created financial incentives for providers to over-diagnose and over-treat patients, is no longer prevalent. The primary justification cited now for COPN is that by restricting competition, it shores up hospital profits and guarantees as a condition of receiving a certificate that hospitals will provide charity care for thousands of Virginians lacking insurance.

Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel explained the logic of the national survey this way: “Do we know anything about … what actually happens in states where there has been deregulation?” (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage here.)

Those are worthwhile questions to start with, but the study group needs to delve a lot deeper. One question I would ask is this: Does Virginia’s COPN really accomplish anything? The chart above, based upon Virginia Department of Health data, shows the dollar value of COPN applications approved and denied. Virginia approves the overwhelming majority of applications, a trend that has become especially evident since 2009. If the COPN reviews are just rubber-stamping applications, what’s the point in reviewing them at all? Alternatively, does the COPN process discourage entrepreneurs from even submitting proposals to a process they deemed to be rigged in favor of established players?

The chart raises another question: What accounts for the dramatic fall-off in health care-related capital spending in Virginia since 2009? We can’t blame it on the 2007-2009 recession, a period during which hospital spending actually peaked. Arguably, spending tanked as a reaction to uncertainty created by the enactment in 2010 of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). But even that explanation begs another question: Why has capital spending remained so low in subsequent years when regulations have been written, the law applied and uncertainty is less prevalent? Have Obamacare or changes in the commercial health insurance market created incentives to restrain capital spending? And, if so, why would we still need COPN?

I would add an even more fundamental set of questions: What impact has COPN had on health care productivity in Virginia? The health care sector is notorious for its low level of productivity growth, an underlying cause of escalating health care costs. There are two schools of thought. The first is that maximizing utilization of a restricted supply of beds and equipment, which COPN is designed to do, will lift productivity. The countervailing theory is that the path to greater productivity lies in embracing new processes, which often entail redesigning the physical layout of hospital floors or even building specialized, dedicated facilities. COPN would slow such changes. Which school of thought is right? Without more evidence, we don’t know.

The debate over U.S. health care focuses overwhelmingly on who pays. It’s a zero-sum game of slicing up a fixed pie so that some get bigger pieces and others get smaller pieces. The only way out of this morass, to borrow a hoary cliche, is to grow the pie — to make more health care available at more affordable prices for all. One way to do that is to overhaul the way health care is delivered: to evolve from a system dominated by general-purpose hospitals that provide a wide range of services to one that includes focused factories specializing at performing a narrow range of procedures exceptionally well and exceptionally efficiently.

That’s not happening. Rather than encouraging entrepreneurial specialization and experimentation, the health care industry is consolidating. Both the insurance and hospital sectors are becoming cartels, and they’re absorbing independent physician practices. The causes are bigger than COPN alone. But COPN may contribute to the trend. The big-picture question Virginia policy makers need to ask is this: Do we want cartels or entrepreneurs to dominate state health care? I don’t hear anyone asking that question.