Natural gas fracking well in Louisiana

Check out CNN's Stimulus "Big Bang", a graphical representation of federal stimulus spending over the past year or so.  You can click on the various elements to get additional details on the programs covered.

What immediately struck me is their estimate that more than 80% of total support came through what they call "stealth" measures.  Stealth support is less visible than direct transfers, though equally valuable.  Many of the programs described involve the use of subsidized credit, such as federal guarantees.  Not surprisingly, subsidized credit is a major element of the policies that large scale, centralized power generation resources have been seeking.

"Stimulus" and "subsidy" are really the same set of policy instruments; they differ only in that the stated purpose of stimulus spending is to keep the economy from going into free fall and depression.  Steering clear whether a big chunk of the stimulus spending is really disguised industry- or consituent-subsidy (the "business-as-usual" case), the dominance of stealth support shown in CNN's map is repeated in many areas of subsidization. 

This is not an accident.  The less visible and more complicated a subsidy transfer mechanism may be, the more attractive it is to both politicians and their recipients to use.  Politicians like it because they receive less political fallout; indeed, in some cases most outsiders won't even know a large subsidy has been granted.  Recipients like it for this reason as well, and because the difficulty in valuing the support often allows them to argue they are not being subsidized at all, even when the value of risk or financial transfers is extremely large.  

As the G20 and APEC nations move forward with their stated commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, it will be extremely important to watch for these stealth subsidies as well as the obvious ones.  Unless the policies capture them both, much of the benefit of reform will be lost.