Quantcast

Hurricane Katrina made landfall 10 years ago and devastated much of the gulf coast. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, both public and private aid flooded into the effected areas. Not all of this aid was effective, and my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have meticulously analyzed what worked, what didn’t, and how the region was largely able to get back on its feet.

One project that is still being scrutinized is the Port of Gulfport Restoration Program. In 2007 the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) requested that $567 million of federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds be diverted to the newly created Port of Gulfport Restoration Program. Prior to Katrina there were 2,058 direct maritime jobs at the port, and the 2007 plan submitted to HUD projected that there would be 5,400 direct, indirect, and induced jobs once the restoration project was complete in 2015. In return for the money the administrators promised HUD that at least 1,300 jobs would be created, and HUD Secretary Julian Castro was recently in Gulfport to check on the progress that has been made. As is typical with HUD projects, the actual progress on the ground has not lived up to the hype.

In September of 2014, nine years after Katrina, the port employed only 814 people. This was well short of even the 2,348 jobs predicted by 2010 in the original 2007 plan. Ignoring the fact that jobs are a poor metric for judging economic development – labor is a cost, not a benefit – the project has failed to live up to the promise made to federal taxpayers who are footing the bill.

HUD funding has a long history of failure. Billions of HUD money has poured into cities such as Detroit and Cleveland since the 1970s with little to show for it. Moreover, any successful HUD story is really just the result of transferring economic activity from one place to another. The $570 million being spent in Gulfport came from taxpayers all over the country who could have spent that money on other things. Moving all of that money to Gulfport caused small declines in economic activity all over the country, such as less investment in local businesses and/or lower demand for local goods and services. These small declines are hard to see relative to the big splash that $570 million in spending creates, but they are real and they do affect people.

Large, federal spending projects rarely live up to their hype and usually waste resources. Local citizens using local assets are often much more effective at revitalizing devastated communities. There are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina, and at the top of the list is don’t expect too much from federally funded programs – they are usually not up to the challenge.

Many US municipalities are facing budget problems (see here, here, and here). The real cost of providing traditional public services like police, fire protection, and education is increasing, often at a rate that exceeds revenue growth. The graph below shows the real per-capita expenditure increase in five US cities from 1951 to 2006. (Data are from the census file IndFin_1967-2012.zip and are adjusted for inflation using the US GDP chained price index.)

real per cap spend

In 1951 none of the cities were spending more than $1,000 per person. In 2006 every city was spending well over that amount, with Buffalo spending almost $5,000 per person. Even Fresno, which had the smallest increase, increased per capita spending from $480 to $1,461 – an increase of 204%. Expenditure growth that exceeds revenue growth leads to budget deficits and can eventually result in cuts in services. Economist William Baumol attributes city spending growth to what is known as the “cost disease”.

In his 1967 paper, Baumol argues that municipalities will face rising costs of providing “public” goods and services over time as the relative productivity of labor declines in the industries controlled by local governments versus those of the private sector. As labor in the private sector becomes more productive over time due to increases in capital, wages will increase. Goods and services traditionally supplied by local governments such as police, fire protection, and education have not experienced similar increases in capital or productivity. K-12 education is a particularly good example of stagnation – a teacher from the 1950s would not confront much of a learning curve if they had to teach in a 21st century classroom. However, in order to attract competent and productive teachers, for example, local governments must increase wages to levels that are competitive with the wages that teachers could earn in the private sector. When this occurs, teacher’s wages increase even though their productivity does not. As a result, cities end up paying more money for the same amount of work. Baumol sums up the effect:

“The bulk of municipal services is, in fact, of this general stamp [non-progressive] and our model tells us clearly what can be expected as a result…inexorably and cumulatively, whether or not there is inflation, administrative mismanagement or malfeasance, municipal budgets will almost certainly continue to mount in the future, just as they have been doing in the past. This is a trend for which no man and no group should be blamed, for there is nothing than can be done to stop it.” (Baumol, 1967 p.423)

But is there really nothing than can be done to cure the cost disease? Baumol himself later acknowledged that innovation may yet occur in the relatively stagnant sectors of the economy such as education:

“…an activity which is, say, relatively stagnant need not stay so forever. It may be replaced by a more progressive substitute, or it may undergo an outburst of innovation previous thought very unlikely.” (Baumol et al. 1985, p.807).

The cure for the cost disease is that the stagnant, increasing-cost sectors need to undergo “an outburst of innovation”. But this raises the question; what has prevented this innovation from occurring thus far?

One thing that Baumol’s story ignores is public choice. Specifically, is the lack of labor-augmenting technology in the public-sector industries a characteristic of the public sector? The primary public sector industries have high rates of unionization and the primary goal of a labor union is to protect its dues-paying members. The chart below provides the union affiliation of workers for several occupations in 2013 and 2014.

union membership chart

In 2014, the protective service occupations and education, training, and library occupations, e.g. police officers and teachers, had relatively high union membership rates of 35%. Conversely, other high-skilled occupations such as management, computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations, and sales and office occupations had relatively low rates, ranging from 4.2% to 6.5% in 2014. Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations were in the middle at 14.6%, down from 16.1% in 2013.

The bottom part of the table shows the union membership rate of the public sector in general and of each level of government: federal, state, and local. The highest rate of unionization was at the local level, where approximately 42% of workers were members of a union in 2014, up from 41% in 2013. This is about 14 percentage points higher than the federal level and 12 percentage points higher than the state level. The union membership rate of the private sector in 2014 was only 6.6%.

In addition to the apathetic and sometimes hostile view unions have towards technological advancement and competition, union membership is also associated with higher wages, particularly at the local-government level. Economists Maury Gittleman and Brooks Piece of the Bureau of Labor statistics found that local-government workers have compensation costs 10 – 19% larger than similar private sector workers.

The table below shows the median weekly earnings in 2013 and 2014 for workers in the two most heavily unionized occupational categories; education, training, and library occupations and protective service occupations. In both occupation groups there is a substantial difference between the union and non-union weekly earnings. From the taxpayer’s perspective, higher earnings mean higher costs.

union median wage chart

There needs to be an incentive to expend resources in labor-saving technology for it to occur and it is not clear that this incentive exists in the public sector. In the public sector, taxpayers ultimately pay for the services they receive but these services are provided by an agent – the local politician(s) – who is expected to act on the taxpayer’s behalf when it comes to spending tax dollars. But in the public sector the agent/politician is accountable to both his employees and the general taxpayer since both groups vote on his performance. The general taxpayer wants the politician to cut costs and invest in labor-augmenting technology while the public-employee taxpayer wants to keep his job and earn more income. Since the public-employee unions are well organized compared to the general taxpayers it is easier for them to lobby their politicians/bosses in order to get their desired outcome, which ultimately means higher costs for the general taxpayer.

If Baumol’s cost disease is the primary factor responsible for the increasing cost of municipal government then there is not an easy remedy in the current environment. If the policing, firefighting, and education industries are unreceptive to labor-augmenting technology due to their high levels of unionization and near-monopoly status, one potential way to cure municipalities of the cost disease is privatization. In their 1996 paper, The Cost Disease and Government Growth: Qualifications to Baumol, economists J. Ferris and Edwin West state “Privatization could lead to significant changes in the structure of supply that result in “genuine” reductions in real costs” (p. 48).

Schools, police, and fire services are not true public goods and thus economic efficiency does not dictate that they are provided by a government entity. Schools in particular have been successfully built and operated by private funds for thousands of years. While there are fewer modern examples of privately operated police and fire departments, in theory both could be successfully privatized and historically fire departments were, though not always with great success. However, the failures of past private fire departments in places like New York City in the 19th century appear to be largely due to political corruption, an increase in political patronage, poorly designed incentives, and the failure of the rule of law rather than an inherent flaw in privatization. And today, many volunteer fire departments still exist. In 2013 69% of all firefighters were volunteers and 66% of all fire departments were all-volunteer.

The near-monopoly status of government provided education in many places and the actual monopoly of government provided police and fire protection makes these industries less susceptible to innovation. The government providers face little to no competition from private-sector alternatives, they are highly unionized and thus have little incentive to invest in labor-saving technology, and the importance of their output along with the aforementioned lack of competition allows them to pass cost increases on to taxpayers.

Market competition, limited union membership, and the profit-incentive are features of the private sector that are lacking in the public sector. Together these features encourage the use of labor-augmenting technology, which ultimately lowers costs and frees up resources, most notably labor, that can then be used on producing other goods and services. The higher productivity and lower costs that result from investments in productive capital also free up consumer dollars that can then be used to purchase additional goods and services from other industries.

Privatization of basic city services may be a little unnerving to some people, but ultimately it may be the only way to significantly bring down costs without cutting services. There are over 19,000 municipal governments in the US, which means there are over 19,000 groups of citizens that are capable of looking for new and innovative ways to provide the goods and services they rely on. In the private sector entrepreneurs continue to invent new things and find ways to make old things better and cheaper. I believe that if we allow entrepreneurs to apply their creativity to the public sector we will get similar outcomes.

In my recent op-ed about rent control I point out that Houston, TX  permitted more home and apartment building than Seattle, WA from 2005 to 2014. The graph below shows the magnitude of this difference. The bars are the number of permits each year (the left axis) and the line is the ratio of Zillow’s home value index (numerator) and the average single family home construction cost for each city (denominator). The right axis reports the ratio. (Seattle’s data are here, Houston’s are here, and permit data are here).

houston, seattle permits graph

As seen in the graph, the orange bars (Houston) are much taller than the blue bars (Seattle). Also, Houston’s home value to average cost ratio was relatively flat during the period shown despite the fact that Houston grew by 163,000 people during this time period. This is because Houston’s high level of building kept pace with demand. During this 10 year period Houston’s home values were roughly 1.6 times average construction cost.

In Seattle, where less building occurred, home values reached nearly 2.5 times average construction costs in 2007 before falling to approximately 1.8 in 2009 due to the housing bust. Home values decreased even further from there, reaching their low point in 2012. Since 2012, however, they have been increasing while in Houston it appears the ratio has leveled off. The difference between the two ratios is not driven by relative cost changes either. The graph below shows the cost per unit in each city over this time period. They are fairly similar in dollar amounts and the ratio between them was relatively constant during this time period.

houston, seattle cost per unit

Seattle’s building restrictions are contributing to the high price of housing in that city. And because prices in Seattle are primarily driven by demand, home values are much more volatile: When demand increases they rise and when demand falls, like from 2007 – 09, they decline quickly.

For more information about the negative consequences of rent control, see here and here.

There is a large literature in macroeconomics that examines the extent to which federal spending “crowds out” investment in the private sector. Basic theory and common sense lead to the conclusion that government spending must replace some private sector spending. After all, dollars are scarce – if the government taxes Paul and uses his money to build a road Paul necessarily has less money to invest in his landscaping business. In theory government spending on public goods like roads could be a net gain. This would occur if the additional value produced by spending one more dollar on roads was greater than the additional value produced by investing one more dollar in Paul’s landscaping business. But even in this scenario, Paul himself may be worse off – he’s one dollar poorer and he may not use the new road – and there is still a dead-weight loss due to the tax.

In reality, the federal government does a lot more than build roads, especially productive ones. In 2014, only 1.9% of federal income tax revenue was spent on transportation. And most of the other stuff that the government does is way less productive, like shuffling money around via entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and investing in businesses that later go bankrupt like Solyndra. So while it is possible that a dollar spent by the government is more productive than a dollar spent by a guy like Paul, in a country with America’s spending habits it’s unlikely to be the case.

The same crowding out that occurs at the federal level can occur at the state level. In fact, in many states state spending as a percentage of gross state product (GSP) exceeds federal spending as a percentage of GDP. The graph below shows state spending as a percentage of GSP for all 50 states and Washington D.C. in 1970, 1990, and 2012 (data). The red, dashed line is federal spending as a percentage of GDP in 2012 (21.9%).

state spending gsp graph

As shown in the graph, nearly every state increased their spending relative to GSP from 1970 – 2012 (triangles are above the X’s). Only one state, South Dakota, had lower spending relative to GSP in 2012 than in 1970. In 2012, 15 of the 50 states spent more as a percentage of GSP than the federal government spent as a percentage of GDP (states where the triangle is above the red, dashed line). In 1990 only two states, Arizona and Montana, spent at that level.

It used to be the case that state and local spending was primarily focused on classic government services like roads, water/sewer systems, police officers, firemen, and K-12 education. But state spending is increasingly looking similar to federal spending. Redistributive public welfare expenditures and pension expenditures have increased substantially since 1992. As an example, the tables below provide a breakdown of some key spending areas for two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in 1992 and 2012 (1992 data here, 2012 data here). The dollar per capita amounts are adjusted for inflation and are in 2009 dollars.

ohio spending table

penn spending table

As the tables show, spending on public welfare, hospitals, and health increased by 120% in Ohio and 86% in Pennsylvania from 1992 to 2012. Pension expenditures increased by 83% and 125% respectively. And contrary to what many politicians and media types say, funding for higher education – the large majority of state education spending is on higher education – increased dramatically during this time period; up 250% in Ohio and 199% in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, funding for highways – the classic public good that politicians everywhere insist wouldn’t exist without them – has increased by a much smaller amount in both states.

The state spending increases of the recent past are being driven in large part by public welfare programs that redistribute money, pensions for government employees, and higher education. While one could argue that higher education spending is a productive public investment (Milton Friedman didn’t think so and I agree) it is hard to make a case that public welfare and pension payments are good investments. This alone doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t provide those things. Other factors like equity and economic security might be more important to some people than economic productivity. But this does make it unlikely that the marginal dollar spent by a state government today is as economically productive as that dollar spent in the private sector. Like federal spending, state spending is likely crowding out productive private investment, which will ultimately lower output and economic growth in the long run.

Education, Innovation, and Urban Growth

July 20, 2015

One of the strongest predictors of urban growth since the start of the 20th century is the skill level of a city’s population. Cities that have a highly skilled population, usually measured as the share of the population with a bachelor’s degree or more, tend to grow faster than similar cities with less educated populations. […]

Read the full post →

Rent control: A bad policy that just won’t die

July 13, 2015

The city council of Richmond, CA is thinking about implementing rent control in their city. Richmond is located north of Berkeley and Oakland on the San Francisco Bay in an area that has some of the highest housing prices in the country. From the article: “Richmond is growing and becoming a more desirable place where […]

Read the full post →

Grants to Puerto Rico haven’t helped much

July 7, 2015

Greece’s monetary and fiscal issues have overshadowed a similar situation right in America’s own back yard: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor recently called the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt “unpayable” and this has made Puerto Rico’s bondholders more nervous than they already were. Puerto Rico’s bonds were previously downgraded to junk by the credit rating […]

Read the full post →

More reasons why intergovernmental grants are harmful

July 6, 2015

In a recent blog post I explained how intergovernmental grants subsidize some businesses at the expense of others. But that is just one of several negative features of intergovernmental grants. They also make local governments less accountable for their fiscal decisions by allowing them to increase spending without increasing taxes. The Community Development Blog Grant […]

Read the full post →

Intergovernmental grant to gelato maker distorts market competition

June 30, 2015

Intergovernmental grants are grants that are given to one level of government by another e.g. federal to state/local or state to local. In addition to being used on public works and services they also subsidize the development of private goods. The Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) is a federally funded grant program that distributes […]

Read the full post →

Local land-use restrictions harm everyone

June 26, 2015

In a recent NBER working paper, authors Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh analyze how the growth of cities determines the growth of nations. They use data on 220 MSAs from 1964 – 2009 to estimate the contribution of each city to US national GDP growth. They compare what they call the accounting estimate to the […]

Read the full post →