Forms of Subsidy

I’ve disparaged the concept of federal government subsidies in other writings, so I thought I’d take a post and identify some types of government subsidy to illustrate the range of handouts for which our pocketbooks are impressed.  Most of the forms below are Federal subsidies; although I do mention a few state-level subsidies, also.

One form of subsidy is direct money transfers.  These can take the forms of block grants to states, and they usually come with federal strings attached governing the use of the money, or the amount of money the states must put up in order to get the grant, or the state laws that must be enacted (vis., speed limits) in order for all of the grant to be delivered.

These transfers also often are based on the services being offered, as is the case with Federal Medicaid transfers, which depend on how many state citizens are eligible under the state’s rules.

Another direct transfer is unemployment insurance and food stamps.  In these programs, recipients have only to apply for the subsidy, and they begin receiving either money ( unemployment checks, for instance) or vouchers (food stamps are an example).

Another form of subsidy is preferential tax treatment for the favored group.  These can take the form of tax deductions or credits or exemptions from taxes.

Examples of tax credits include the Earned Income Tax Credit, tax credits to consumers for installing energy efficient items (e.g., geothermal heat pumps, residential-sized wind turbines, solar energy systems, and so on).  Other tax credits are aimed at the ethanol industry and renewable energy equipment manufacturers.

Tax deductions are available for oil and gas producers and for renewable energy producers and equipment manufacturers.  Other deductions exist for home (or business plant) mortgage interest, charitable contributions, age and disability on personal income taxes, and so on.

Individuals whose income is below a threshold are subsidized through being exempt from income taxes altogether.  The interest on some government borrowing (municipal bonds, for instance) can be exempt from taxes, and certain non-profit organizations are exempt from a variety of taxes.

Another form of subsidy is in the form of government loan guaranties, which enable the borrower to get loans at more favorable rates than they otherwise could.  These include, among others, student loan guarantees, home mortgage guarantees, and renewable energy company loan guarantees (recall Solyndra, et al.)

Another form of subsidy occurs through regulation.  A major example here is the protected monopoly status that utility companies and drug manufacturers get.  Such status protects the company from competitive pressures for a period of time (drug manufacturers and, not too distantly related, patent, copyright, license, and so on, holders) or for so long as government objectives are met (e.g., utility companies, who must comply with their (state) government rate requirements and criteria).

Other regulations are aimed explicitly at putting certain entities out of business.  The EPA’s clean air regulations aimed at coal-fired power plants are an example.

Another form of subsidy occurs through government mandates.  An example of these are mandates to buy (or sell) certain products (which can occur only at the expense of not having that money available to buy other products, even unrelated ones; or at the expense of not having that capital equipment or staff available to produce/sell other products, including unrelated ones).  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s Individual Mandate and the requirement to provide contraceptive services and abortifacients are illustrations.

Another type of mandate is a manufacturing one: producers must use fixed per centages of ethanol in gasoline manufactured for sale.  This mandate exists solely to create a market for ethanol that otherwise might not exist.

Another form of subsidy consists of government preferences.  These include preferential hiring requirements (military veterans, minorities, disabled, and so on) and preferential contract award requirements.  Preferential contracting includes preferences for minority-owned small businesses, and for small businesses, generally.

Another form of subsidy occurs primarily at the state level, particularly in those states that have union shop laws.  Such laws subsidize the unions either by requiring individuals to join a union as a condition of employment or by allowing the union to collect union dues from all employees in a company whether the employees are union members or not.  Such laws represent a large source of income for the unions in the form of dues they wouldn’t otherwise be able to collect.

Perhaps the most insidious subsidy is in the form of government-mandated affirmative action programs.  Such programs require the government to give greater weight to some citizens in its hiring (which weight can only come at the expense of other citizens trying to compete for the same job) and to give greater weight in its contracts to some entities—which again can come only at the expense of other entities bidding on the same contract.  Note that while these are closely related to the government preferences noted above, they differ in a critical way: affirmative action is based solely on race, gender, or ethnicity.

This is not an exhaustive list, either of type of subsidy or examples within each type presented, by any means, but you get the idea.  Nor have I offered any judgment concerning the legitimacy of any of the subsidies; that’s for another post.

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