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December 22, 2009

Why Cash For Caulkers Is Good [If Not Libertarian] Public Policy

by Brad Warbiany

As a libertarian, I spend a lot of time railing against idiotic government giveaways. The TARP, the Porkulus Stimulus, and Cash For Clunkers all took copious levels of heat. I derided them for various reasons:

TARP: Notwithstanding the wide-ranging areas this money was targeted to (i.e. auto bailouts) and the fact that when it was determined it would lose less than planned the difference would be spent elsewhere, this was nothing more than a bald-faced attempt to shore up balance sheets to forestall economic reality. I said at the time that much of this activity was designed to slow down the contraction and hope that the economy could grow out of the doldrums in the meantime, but that it risks causing rampant inflation when money velocity actually picks up. Worst, it had the potential for the government to buy the worst garbage paper the banks had on offer, essentially being an economic sinkhole of major proportions. Luckily it has not been as bad as anticipated, largely because government meddling in the internal affairs of banks has caused them to try like hell to pay it back quickly and get themselves out from under its terms.

Stimulus: The stimulus was billed as a way to jumpstart shovel-ready infrastructure projects, but it was quickly apparent that the only thing shoveled was a load of BS. Stimulus was little more than a giveaway to state and local governments to continue spending beyond the ability of their states to support and reward them for overspending the proceeds of economic expansion as if the bubble would never pop. While employment has plummeted in the private sector, government is growing — never a good sign to a libertarian. Here in high-tax California, we need to slash our state public sector, not bail it out.

Cash for clunkers: Billed as a stimulus and environmental program, cash for clunkers was pure destruction of economic value. Cars with an average market value of roughly $1500 — productive, useful assets — were rendered completely inoperable. In a perverse unintended consequence, it dried up the supply of older used cars (and thus increased the price of said cars), hurting some of the poor who might not be able to afford better vehicles. Paying people to dig and then fill up holes would have been economically stupid, but cash for clunkers is the equivalent of asking them to put uranium in those holes so that hole could never be safely dug again. Pure economic insanity.

But Cash for Caulkers is somewhat different. For those unfamiliar with the proposed program, it gives tax subsidies to people who work to make their homes more energy-efficient. The draft would provide a 50% rebate on materials and labor up to $12K per household. As a libertarian, I don’t much believe that the government should have the responsibility to fix economic burst bubbles. But this particular policy has several features that make it much more effective and efficient economic stimulus than much of what the federal government has done.

  • This policy primarily targets those in the building/construction trade, arguably the hardest hit of the economic downturn. Since the housing bubble was partially created by bad government policy, it is at least preferable to help these folks find a more orderly transition than the welfare line.
  • Home weatherization and energy efficiency is often a large initial expense with a long time horizon to pay back. Due to increased social and geographic mobility, it is often ignored by homeowners who don’t know if they’ll be in their homes long enough to make the efficiency gains worth it. Thus, improvements in home energy efficiency are underproduced by the market.
  • Because this will reduce energy consumption in some homes, it may have the positive externality of reducing demand on energy for all users (thus hopefully lowering price). Again, this positive externality suggests that energy efficiency improvements are underproduced by the market.
  • Finally, unlike Cash-for-clunkers, which destroyed and replaced useful economic assets, Cash for Caulkers actually improves existing economic assets. There is a lasting economic benefit to reduced energy usage for the present and future owners of these homes.

Of course, I cannot claim that I’m in favor of this program. The positive aspects I list above are ascribed to my ideal cash-for-caulkers policy, which I am certain will not closely resemble what comes out of the sausage-factory on Capitol Hill. Waste, fraud, and abuse are certain to be rampant. In a cost-benefit analysis of the size of the program, one can’t assume Congress will determine either cost or benefit rationally. It is picking economic winners and losers, which is partly responsible for getting us into the Great Recession in the first place. And finally, while it might have been an interesting idea BEFORE the TARP, stimulus, and cash for clunkers, I think we’ve already gone so far into deficit spending that it’s a good idea to stop while we’re only a few trillion behind. It appears that the country has hired Barack Obama to dig a deficit hole and [hopefully] fill it back up, but he simply refuses to stop digging.

So if I’m not in favor of the program, why am I writing this post? Frankly, it’s because I saw the level of derision that the policy got on several fronts (including from Jon Stewart). Done properly (which I don’t expect Congress to be capable of delivering), it would have been a timely program that helps those who are most affected by the housing crash while improving existing assets that might not be otherwise improved. Done properly, it could actually be seen as an investment in our future — and by that I mean an actual investment, not simply “spending”, which is politicospeak for that word.

It might sound silly, but home weatherization actually has potential at being smart policy. After a year of horrible, bad, not-very-good-at-all government spending and giveaway programs, to see one that actually has promise shouldn’t cause scorn and derision as its primary reactions.

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  • http://www.kipesquire.net KipEsquire

    Why not just save a step and forbid anyone from living where weatherization would be needed in the first place?

    Might not be very libertarian, etc. …

  • ConsDemo

    It’s a good idea. I’m not sure how much Congress will muck it up, I suspect they won’t cover 50 percent of costs.

  • Mike

    I’ve always had a problem with Cash4Clunkers. To me it seems to go against simple supply and demand economics. How can we push all of these new cars into a market already saturated with used and repossessed vehicles (i.e. http://www.repofinder.com)? Now new cars are worth even less, we have more Americans in debt, and eventually more repossessions.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Kip,

    Southern California is crowded enough as it is. Do you really think I want to invite MORE people to live here?

  • Ron H.

    Brad, I AM surprised that as a libertarian you would consider the Cash for Caulkers a good idea. First of all, there’s the obvious problem of Government spending my money to select winners (building trades people and property owners) and losers (everyone else). Then there’s the not so obvious fact that if weatherization was economically sound, it would already be happening without subsidies. When the price of heating & cooling gets high enough, weatherization will become attractive on it’s own.

  • Ron H.

    I too live in the People’s Republic of Kalifornia, and I don’t think we will suffer from overcrowding for very much longer. When I open my window in the morning on a nice day I can hear the roar of businesses moving out of the state. There won’t be enough real jobs left to matter soon, so we can invite as many people as we want, but few will come.

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