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In a guest column written for Americans for Prosperity, Kansas, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita explains why political cronyism, sometimes called crony capitalism, is wrong for our country. Pompeo coins a useful new term: “photo-op economics” to describe why some politicians support wasteful federal spending projects — as long as the spending is wasted in their districts. Then logrolling — the trading of legislative favors — applies, and those legislators who received votes from others to support wasteful spending must now reciprocate and support other wasteful spending.
Pompeo touches on an important aspect of public policy that is not often mentioned: “Moreover, what about the jobs lost because everyone else’s taxes went up to pay for the subsidy and to pay for the high utility bills from wind-powered energy? There will be no ribbon-cuttings for those out-of-work families.” This describes the problem of the seen and unseen, as explained by Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt in the famous parable of the broken window.
By U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo
The word “conservative” brings to mind family values, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility — and limited government. Limited government means a government limited in size, in its claim on national wealth, and — importantly — limited in the ends to which government’s power is used. It also means federal elected officials must act in the nation’s best interest and not allow their own parochial concerns to dominate their decision making. A big obstacle on the path to restoring limited government in America is cronyism.
We all know the story. A flawed system has created incentives that make it easier for some companies to succeed by hiring a lobbyist rather than improving productivity or satisfying customers. Lobbyists for these businesses and the politicians who support them want the federal government picking winners and losers across our economy — so long as they are selected as “winners.” In my first term in Congress, we have eliminated earmarks that rewarded politically connected, rent-seeking advocates for federal largesse by tucking provisions into bills without adequate vetting or thorough review. But ever clever politicians have another tool — the tax code — to accomplish much the same outcome. This form of cronyism must stop too.
“Tax earmarks” — be they deductions or credits — provide certain industries and businesses a means to gain financial advantage. Tax earmarks distort our free choices, waste tax dollars, and raise prices to provide goods and services that free markets provide more abundantly and more cheaply. They also force federal tax rates up, penalizing those who don’t receive them, because higher rates are required to capture the same revenue given all of the special interest tax earmarks now in effect. And, unlike standard earmarks, tax earmarks tend to be renewed year after year after year.
One current fight against the insidious political tool of tax earmarks involves the energy sector. I am leading the charge to eliminate over two dozen energy tax credits tucked into the Internal Revenue Code. My proposed legislation would get rid of every single tax credit related to energy — ending tax favoritism that today goes to wind and solar, algae and electric vehicles and tax credits that go to the oil and gas industry as well. Tax subsidies miscast the role of the federal government. Energy sources are either viable without subsidies or else they do not make economic sense for taxpayers.
Subsidies and giveaways redistribute wealth from productive, self-sustaining enterprises to unproductive, less efficient, albeit politically connected, ones. Although subsidies may have positive local effects, they penalize successful businesses — leading to less innovation, decreased productivity, fewer jobs, and higher prices for consumers. Cronyism also mistreats unsubsidized competitors, who wind up subsidizing their own competition to the detriment of their employees, consumers, and free-market competition.
Together with tried-and-true conservative leaders like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (WI), and Tea Party leaders like Sen. Jim DeMint (SC), and Sen. Mike Lee (UT), I am fighting to end this form of cronyism. Conservative groups including Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Club for Growth, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, Freedom Action, Heritage Action, National Taxpayers Union, and Taxpayers for Common Sense have all rallied to the side of limited government on this issue. They understand that picking winners and losers in the energy marketplace does not create long-term economic growth, and it harms our economic and political systems.
One example of a tax earmark that should be eliminated is the Production Tax Credit (PTC) that goes to the wind industry. Yet, some Republican and Democrat members of Congress, not surprisingly from “wind states,” are pushing for yet another multi-year extension of the PTC, a multi-billion dollar handout to Big Wind. The PTC manipulates the energy market, drives up electricity bills for consumers and businesses, and creates a dangerous economic bubble. The PTC is a huge subsidy. Applied to oil companies, it would be the equivalent of giving $30 for every barrel of oil produced, according to the Heritage Foundation. The PTC has existed for the past 20 years, but it has not succeeded yet in making unsubsidized wind competitive. Politicians who pretend that a few more years of the PTC will make wind competitive could be right, but that is not a responsible bet to make with taxpayer dollars.
Supporters of Big Wind, like President Obama, defend these enormous, multi-decade subsidies by saying they are fighting for jobs, but the facts tell a different story. Can you say “stimulus”? The PTC’s logic is almost identical to the President’s failed stimulus spending of $750 billion — redistribute wealth from hard-working taxpayers to politically favored industries and then visit the site and tell the employees that “without me as your elected leader funneling taxpayer dollars to your company, you’d be out of work.” I call this “photo-op economics.” We know better. If the industry is viable, those jobs would likely be there even without the handout. Moreover, what about the jobs lost because everyone else’s taxes went up to pay for the subsidy and to pay for the high utility bills from wind-powered energy? There will be no ribbon-cuttings for those out-of-work families.
Here’s the data. The “green energy” 1603 grant program has given away $4.3 billion to 36 wind farms just since 2008. All together, these farms now employ 300 people. That’s $14 million per job. This is an unconscionable return on investment, especially for your tax dollars. Given that consumers also pay higher energy prices for electricity generated from wind, one has to wonder why some in Washington continue to push for Big Wind subsidies. Often the answer is that politicians care more about making good political investments than they do about making bad financial investments.
In this respect, the PTC handout is virtually indistinguishable from the program that led to the Solyndra debacle. The Obama Administration gave 500 million taxpayer dollars to a private solar panel company to prop up a failed business model. As soon as government money ran out, the company folded. Solyndra could not attract sufficient private capital for financing because its solar panels could not compete in the consumer market. So it turned to its lobbyists in Washington and friends in the Obama Administration for its financing. The result was a skewed consumer marketplace and the waste of taxpayer dollars. Like the earmark for the Bridge to Nowhere, political allocation of your taxpayer dollars is failed policy.
I get the game. Elected officials in Michigan want your money for electric cars. Those from California want your money for solar panels. And those from the Midwest want your money for wind turbines. In a country that has a $15 trillion national debt, annual deficits of over $1 trillion as far as the eye can see, and a $100 trillion unfunded liability in entitlement programs, this must stop.
I believe that American ingenuity will eventually bring new energy sources to market successfully. It may be wind or algae, it may be biomass or solar. It may be the enormous natural gas and oil reservoirs that can now be reached affordably right here in North America. I also believe that American families making good choices for themselves will lead the way in deciding which new energy source or technology succeeds. Trying to pick that next great source from Washington, D.C. — and with your money — just leads to more cronyism, more debt, more bad decisions, more dependence on the Middle East and a much less limited federal government — outcomes that none of us can afford.
Congressman Mike Pompeo represents Kansas’ 4th Congressional District.