Eric Blumenfeld Realty Management (EBRM) recently secured $44 million in financing to restore the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia. According to the article:

“EBRM will renovate the 9-story property into a boutique residential community comprised of 109-rental units to sit above 20,000 s/f of restaurant and retail space.”

But Blumenfeld did not receive ordinary financing. Instead EBRM largely circumvented the private sector capital markets and received a substantial portion of its financing courtesy of the Pennsylvania taxpayer:

“The hotel’s revitalization involved coordinating with an array of state and city governmental agencies and programs, including the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority which provided a $2,500,000 loan and $1,000,000 grant, the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program which provided a $3,500,000 RACP grant, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. which provided a bridge loan for the state grant, and the parks department which is anticipated to provide $8,000,000 in historic tax credits financing.”

In total EBRM received over $15 million in government grants, loans, and tax credits, including a RACP grant, which my research shows simply shuffles economic activity around Pennsylvania and puts taxpayers on the hook for paying back the bonds that fund the program – with interest.

I appreciate the renovation of historic landmarks but I don’t think taxpayers should have to help with the financing. Boutique apartments are a private good and as such their provision is best left to the market, without assistance from public funds. Some businesses choose to pursue government grants and subsidies rather than create a business plan that private investors are willing to finance – and who can blame them? It’s often easier to work with local governments that are just waiting to throw money at any business venture that promises jobs than to go through the trouble of creating a profitable business capable of attracting investors.

If you’re a Pennsylvania taxpayer thinking about moving to Philadelphia I recommend a new unit in the remodeled Divine Lorraine. At least that way you might get something for your money.

City officials in Scranton, PA are concerned that a recently released U.S. census map used as a basis for distributing federal grant money doesn’t reflect reality. The map was created using 2010 census data and identifies which neighborhoods meet the U.S. government’s criteria for low-to-moderate-income classification. Such neighborhoods are eligible to receive Community Development Block grant (CDBG) funding.

Scranton Councilman Wayne Evans stated that:

“A lot of us feel that the map is inaccurate, knowing the neighborhoods like we do,”

The city is hoping to conduct their own survey of the area and then use the results to petition the federal government to change the designations of the areas city officials believe are misclassified so they can receive funding.

This situation is a great example of the importance of local knowledge. Economist F.A. Hayek wrote the seminal paper on the importance of local knowledge in 1945. In his book Doing Bad by Doing Good, economist Chris Coyne builds on Hayek’s idea and defines the “planner’s problem” as “the inability of nonmarket participants to access relevant knowledge regarding how to allocate resources in a welfare-maximizing way in the face of a variety of competing, feasible alternatives.” The primary goal of the CDBG program is to create viable urban communities. In order to accomplish this a top-down planner needs to take certain steps: 1) the place to be developed needs to be identified and the goals of the development need to be established; 2) the availability of the resources needed for the development project needs to be confirmed and the resources need to be allocated; and 3) a feedback mechanism needs to be identified that can confirm that the goals are met. If any of these steps are not taken effective economic development will not occur.

As the example from Scranton shows, sometimes the planner – in this case the Department of Housing and Urban Development – fails to carry out step 1 effectively: Scranton officials and HUD can’t even agree on the place to be developed. Instead of letting the local officials who are knowledgeable about the area allocate the CDBGs, HUD officials in Washington bypass them by identifying the areas that need help via census data. Sometimes this approach might work, but when it doesn’t resources will be given to relatively prosperous areas while poorer areas are ignored.

The misallocation of resources will be an issue as long as the ability to allocate the funds is severed from the people with local knowledge of the communities. Cities and municipalities are receiving more and more of their revenues from the state and federal government, as seen in the graph below for Pennsylvania, and this contributes to situations like the one in Scranton.

PA intergov grants

As shown in the graph, total intergovernmental revenue and state intergovernmental to local governments in Pennsylvania increased in real terms from 1992 to 2012 (measured on the left vertical axis). In 1992, total intergovernmental revenue to local governments was equal to 59% of the revenue that local governments raised on their own (the orange line measured on the right vertical axis). In 2012 it was equal to 69%, an increase of 10 percentage points. This means that local governments became more dependent on higher-level governments for funding.

Funding from higher-level governments usually comes with restrictions and conditions that must be met, which prevents local citizens from using their local knowledge to alleviate the problems in their community. The further away decisions makers are from the region, the more likely they are to misidentify the problem areas. In Scranton’s case, city officials now have to expend scarce resources conducting their own survey and petitioning the federal government to change the neighborhood classifications.

Local knowledge is important and it should be utilized by decision makers. State and federal governments should limit intergovernmental transfers and allow local communities to keep more of their own tax dollars, which they can then use to address their own local issues.

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.

Rent control, housing supply, and home values in Seattle and Houston

August 4, 2015

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 […]

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State government spending hits new heights

July 30, 2015

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 […]

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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. […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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