Even if they ostensibly go to consumers, they end up enriching companies by enabling higher prices.
by Tomas J. Philipson, The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2022
President Biden insists he is fighting inflation by making things more affordable for middle-class American households. To that end, his administration and Congress trotted out big-dollar subsidies for consumers of green energy, drugs and higher education last month. But the bulk of that federal cash will likely end up in the pockets of companies, not consumers. August may go down as an epic month of feeding the fat cats.
In a normal market, sellers receive the price buyers pay. If you have a garage sale where your chair sells for $100, you get all $100. But there are virtually no such markets in the U.S. anymore because taxes and subsidies jam a wedge between what buyers pay and sellers receive. Companies pay more for workers than workers take home because of income and payroll taxes. Poor patients pay less than what hospitals receive because of Medicaid subsidies.
Economists recognize that government intervention in a market results not in a single price but two—a “demand price” paid by buyers and a “supply price” received by sellers.
When a market is subsidized, buyers and sellers both typically benefit through a rise in the supply price and a fall in the demand price. Companies get more but consumers pay less, courtesy of taxpayers. But which party the law designates as the recipient of a subsidy—consumers or companies—doesn’t determine who gains from the subsidy. That’s determined by the structure of subsidies and market forces, which is why the consumer subsidies launched in August will likely amount to a generous corporate-welfare program.
Consider the new regulations accompanying the student-loan forgiveness program. The Biden administration is heavily expanding income-driven repayment, which caps what borrowers pay each month. The implication seems to be that students can borrow more at no additional cost. “Most of these plans cancel a borrower’s remaining debt once they make 20 years of monthly payments,” according to the White House. Universities can raise tuition (the supply price) without affecting the total loan payment by students (the demand price). Or the student can borrow more than necessary and invest the money with no intention of ever paying back the loan, reducing the effective tuition further. Unfortunately, the gift from taxpayers will likely go to the most expensive schools and the ones with the largest endowments.
Likewise, the administration pitched many of the green-energy subsidies of the Inflation Reduction Act as a relief to consumers. Subsidies for heat pumps, rooftop solar panels and electric air conditioners will supposedly make homes more energy-efficient and therefore cheaper to maintain. Tax credits for electric vehicles are meant to hasten the transition away from gasoline, but manufacturers are already raising supply prices by the exact amount of the subsidies, with demand prices remaining constant. This is the predicted result of a subsidy when suppliers have market power—as the electric-vehicle oligopoly does—and when there is excess demand for the product. When markets are more competitive, companies pass the value of the subsidies on to consumers because if they don’t, a competitor will.
The Inflation Reduction Act’s caps on copays in the Medicare drug program ensure further distortions to that already convoluted market. The maximum demand price at the pharmacy—$2,000 starting in 2025 under the Inflation Reduction Act—will show up for consumers as higher premiums, but taxpayers already subsidize 75% of those. The bottom line is that demand prices will be further decoupled from increased supply prices.
Mr. Biden may genuinely believe these consumer subsidies will help take the inflationary pressure off the household budgets of middle-class Americans. But the hard truth is that market forces decide who benefits from government subsidies. That’s why supply-side competition is often the best way to protect consumers from higher prices.
Mr. Philipson is an economist at the University of Chicago. He served as a member of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers and was acting chairman, 2019-20.