Wind tax credits are government spending in disguise
Posted by James Franko on Thursday, April 5, 2012

This post is courtesy of Bob Weeks and his Voice for Liberty in Wichita blog, where the piece originally appeared.

Recently Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and U.S. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas made the case for extending the production tax credit (PTC) for the production of electrical power by wind.

The PTC pays generators of wind power 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour produced, a high rate of subsidy for a product that sells for 9.5 cents, according to a March 2010 illustration provided by Westar.

Brownback and Moran contend that this tax credit is necessary to let the industry "complete its transformation from being a high tech startup to becoming cost competitive in the energy marketplace." But wind is not a new industry. The PTC has been in place for twenty years. If an industry can't get established in that period, when will it be ready to stand in its own?

The authors also contend that canceling the PTC will result in a "tax hike on wind energy companies." To some extent this is true -- but only because the industry has enjoyed preferential tax treatment that it should never have received.The proper way to view the PTC is as a government spending program in disguise. That's the true economic effect of tax credits. They are equivalent to grants of money.

Amazingly, Brownback and Moran do not realize this -- at least if we take them at their written word as they describe the PTC: "These are not cash handouts; they are reductions in taxes that help cover the cost of doing business." (Emphasis added.)

It is the mixing of spending programs with taxation that leads these politicians to wrongly claim that tax credits are not cash handouts. But not everyone falls for this seductive trap. In an article in Cato Institute's Regulation magazine, Edward D. Kleinbard explains:

Specialists term these synthetic government spending programs "tax expenditures." Tax expenditures are really spending programs, not tax rollbacks, because the missing tax revenues must be financed by more taxes on somebody else. ... Tax expenditures dissolve the boundaries between government revenues and government spending. They reduce both the coherence of the tax law and our ability to conceptualize the very size and activities of our government. (The Hidden Hand of Government Spending, Fall 2010.)

U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita recognized the cost of paying for tax credit expenditures when he recently wrote: "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 is an example of the seen and unseen, and also of the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Politicians hope we won't notice.

When Brownback and Moran write of the loss of income to those who profit from wind power, we should remember that these profits do not arise from transactions between willing partners. Instead, they result from politicians who override the judgment of free people and free markets with their own political preferences -- along with looking out for the parochial interests of the home state. We need less of this type of wind power.