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New York’s Buffalo Billion plan has come under fire amidst an ongoing corruption probe looking into whether some contracts were inappropriately awarded to political donors. The investigation has led to funding delays and there are reports of some contractors and companies rethinking their investments. But even without these legal problems, it is unlikely that the Buffalo Billion initiative will remake Buffalo’s economy.

Buffalo, NY has been one of America’s struggling cities since the 1950s, but before then it had a long history of growth. After it became the terminal point of the Erie Canal in 1825 it grew rapidly; over the next 100 years the city’s population went from just under 9,000 to over 570,000. Growth slowed down from 1930 to 1950, and between 1950 and 1960 the city lost nearly 50,000 people. It has been losing population ever since. The Metropolitan Area (MSA), which is the economic city, continued to grow until the 1970s as people left the central city for the surrounding suburbs, but it has also been losing population since then. (click to enlarge figure)

buffalo-population

Buffalo’s population decline has not escaped the notice of local, state and federal officials, and billions of dollars in government aid have been given to the area in an effort to halt or reverse its population and economic slide. The newest attempt is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, which promises to give $1 billion of state funds to the region. The investment began in 2013 and as of January 2016, $870.5 million worth of projects have been announced. The table below lists some of the projects, the amount of the investment, and the number of jobs each investment is supposed to create, retain, or induce (includes indirect jobs due to construction and jobs created by subsequent private investment). This information is from the Buffalo Billion Process and Implementation plan (henceforth Buffalo Billion Plan).

buffalo-billion-projects

The projects listed have been awarded $727 million in direct investment, $150 million in tax breaks and $250 million in other state funds. The total number of jobs related to these investments is 9,900 according to the documentation, for an average cost of $113,859 per job (last column).

However, these jobs numbers are projections, not actual counts. This is one of the main criticisms of investment efforts like Buffalo Billion—a lot of money is spent and a lot of jobs are promised, but rarely does anyone follow up to see if the jobs were actually created. In this case it remains to be seen whether reality will match the promises, but the early signs are not encouraging.

Executives of the first project, SolarCity, which received $750 million of benefits and promised 5,000 jobs in western New York, appear to have already scaled back their promise. One company official recently said that 1,460 jobs will be created in Buffalo, including 500 manufacturing jobs. This is down from 2,000 in the Buffalo Billion Plan, a 27% decrease.

The SolarCity factory is not scheduled to open until June 2017 so there is still time for hiring plans to change. But even if the company eventually creates 5,000 jobs in the area, it is hard to see how that will drastically improve the economy of an MSA of over 1.1 million people. Moreover, page eight of the Buffalo Billion Plan reports that the entire $1 billion is only projected to create 14,000 jobs over the course of 5 years, which is again a relatively small amount for such a large area.

Contrary to the local anecdotes that say otherwise, so far there is little evidence that Buffalo Billion has significantly impacted the local economy. Since the recession, employment in Buffalo and its MSA has barely improved, as shown below (data are from the BLS). There has also been little improvement since 2013 when the Buffalo Billion development plan was released. (City data plotted on the right axis, MSA on the left axis.)

buffalo-employment

Real wages in both Erie and Niagara County, the two counties that make up the Buffalo MSA, have also been fairly stagnant since the recession, though there is evidence of some improvement since 2013, particularly in Erie County (data are from the BLS). Still, it is hard to separate these small increases in employment and wages from the general recovery that typically occurs after a deep recession.

buffalo-county-wages

The goal of the Buffalo Billion is to create a “Big Push” that leads to new industry clusters, such as a green energy cluster anchored by SolarCity and an advanced manufacturing cluster. Unfortunately, grandiose plans to artificially create clusters in older manufacturing cities rarely succeed.

As economist Enrico Moretti notes in his book, The New Geography of Jobs, in order for Big Push policies to succeed they need to attract both workers and firms at the same time. This is hard to do since either workers or firms need to be convinced that the other group will eventually arrive if they make the first move.

If firms relocate but high-skill workers stay away, then the firm has spent scarce resources locating in an area that doesn’t have the workforce it needs. If workers move but firms stay away, then the high-skill workers are left with few employment opportunities. Neither situation is sustainable in the long-run.

The use of targeted incentives to attract firms, as in the aforementioned SolarCity project, has been shown to be an ineffective way to grow a regional economy. While such incentives often help some firms at the expense of others, they do not provide broader benefits to the economy as a whole. The mobile firms attracted by such incentives, called footloose firms, are also likely to leave once the incentives expire, meaning that even if there is a short term boost it will be expensive to maintain since the incentives will have to be renewed.

Also, in order for any business to succeed state and local policies need to support, rather than inhibit, economic growth. New York has one of the worst economic environments according to several different measures: It’s 50th in overall state freedom, 50th in economic freedom, and 49th in state business tax climate. New York does well on some other measures, such as Kauffman’s entrepreneurship rankings, but such results are usually driven by the New York City area, which is an economically vibrant area largely due to historical path dependencies and agglomeration economies. Buffalo, and western New York in general, lacks the same innate and historical advantages and thus has a harder time overcoming the burdensome tax and regulatory policies of state government, which are particularly harmful to the local economies located near state borders.

Buffalo officials can control some things at the local level that will improve their economic environment, such as zoning, business licensing, and local taxes, but in order to achieve robust economic growth the city will likely need better cooperation from state officials.

State and local policy makers often refuse to acknowledge the harm that relatively high-tax, high-regulation environments have on economic growth, and this prevents them from making policy changes that would foster more economic activity. Instead, politicians invest billions of dollars of taxpayer money, often in the form of ineffective targeted incentives to favored firms or industries, with the hope that this time will be different.

Discovering an areas comparative advantage and creating a sustainable industry cluster or clusters requires experimentation, which will likely result in some failures. Local and state governments should create an environment that encourages entrepreneurs to experiment with new products and services in their region, but they shouldn’t be risking taxpayer money picking winners and losers. Creating a low-tax, low-regulation environment that treats all businesses—established and start-up, large and small—the same is a better way to grow an economy than government subsidies to favored firms. Unfortunately the Buffalo Billion project looks like another example of the latter futile strategy.

Economists are obsessed with growth. And for good reason. Greater wealth doesn’t just buy us nicer vacations and fancier gadgets. It also buys longer life spans, better nutrition, and lower infant mortality. It buys more time with family, and less time at work. It buys greater self-reported happiness. And as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman has argued, wealth even seems to make us better people:

Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.

For much of my lifetime, brisk economic growth was the norm in the United States. From 1983 to 2000, annual growth in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP averaged 3.67 percent. During this period, the U.S. experienced only one (short and mild) recession in the early ‘90s. The era was known among macroeconomists as the “great moderation.”

But starting around the turn of the millennium, things changed. Instead of averaging 3.67 percent growth, the U.S. economy grew at less than half that rate, 1.78 percent on average. To see the effect of this deceleration, consider the chart below (data are from the BEA). The blue line shows actual GDP growth (as measured in billions of chained 2009 dollars).

The red line shows what might have happened if we’d continued to grow at the 3.67 percent rate which prevailed for the two previous decades. At this rate, the economy would have been 30 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

This assumes that the Great Recession never happened. So to see what would have happened to GDP if the Great Recession had still occurred but if growth had resumed (as it has in every other post-WWII recession), I calculated a second hypothetical growth path. The green line shows the hypothetical path of GDP had the economy still gone through the Great Recession but then resumed its normal 3.67 percent rate of growth from 2010 onward. Under this scenario, the economy would have been fully 8 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-11-31-02-am

(Click to enlarge)

So what happened to growth? One answer is economic freedom—or a lack thereof. Just yesterday, the Fraser Institute released its annual Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by Professors James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of West Virginia University, the report assesses the degree to which people are free to exchange goods and services with one another without interference. As Adam Smith might have put it, it measures the degree to which we live under “a system of natural liberty.”

As the chart below shows, economic freedom was on the steady rise before 2000. This coincided with modest deregulation of a few industries under Carter and Reagan, tax cuts under Reagan and Clinton, free trade deals, and restrained growth in the size of government. But from 2000 onward, U.S. economic freedom has been in precipitous decline. This coincides with major new financial regulations under both Bush II and Obama, significant growth in government spending, and a steady erosion in measures of the rule of law.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-11-33-15-am

(Click to enlarge)

As I’ve noted before, the research on economic freedom is quite extensive (nearly 200 peer-reviewed academic studies use economic freedom as an explanatory variable). Moreover, meta-studies of that literature find “there is a solid finding of a direct positive association between economic freedom and economic growth.”

Perhaps the two charts have something to do with one another?

 

 

Wealth inequality in the United States and many European countries, especially between the richest and the rest, has been a popular topic since Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was published. Piketty and others argue that tax data shows that wealth inequality has increased in the U.S. since the late 1970s, as seen in the figure below from a paper by Emmanuel Saez—Picketty’s frequent co-author— and Gabriel Zucman.

top-0-1-income-inequ

The figure shows the percentage of all U.S. household wealth that is owned by the top 0.1% of households, which as the note explains consists of about 160,000 families. The percentage fell from 25% in the late 1920s to about 7% in the late 1970s and then began to rise. Many people have used this and similar data to argue for higher marginal taxes on the rich and more income redistribution in order to close the wealth gap between the richest and the rest.

While politicians and pundits continue debating what should be done, if anything, about taxes and redistribution, many economists are trying to understand what factors can affect wealth and thus the wealth distribution over time. An important one that is not talked about enough is competition, specifically Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction.

Charles Jones, a professor at Stanford, has discussed the connection between profits and creative destruction and their link with inequality. To help illustrate the connection, Mr. Jones uses the example of an entrepreneur who creates a new phone app. The app’s creator will earn profits over time as the app’s popularity and sales increase. However, her profits will eventually decline due to the process of creative destruction: a newer, better app will hit the market that pulls her customers away from her product, erodes her sales and forces her to adapt or fail. The longer she is able to differentiate her product from others, the longer she will be in business and the more money she will earn. This process is stylized in the figure below.

firm-life-and-profit2

If the app maintains its popularity for the duration of firm life 1, the entrepreneur will earn profits P1. After that the firm is replaced by a new firm that also exists for firm life 1 and earns profit P1. The longer a firm is able to maintain its product’s uniqueness, the more profit it will earn, as shown by firm life 2: In this case the firm earns profit P2. A lack of competition stretches out a firm’s life cycle since the paucity of substitutes makes it costlier for consumers to switch products if the value of the firm’s product declines.

Higher profits can translate into greater inequality as well, especially if we broaden the discussion to include wages and sole-proprietor income. Maintaining market power for a long period of time by restricting entry not only increases corporate profits, it also allows doctors, lawyers, opticians, and a host of other workers who operate under a licensing regime that restricts entry to earn higher wages than they otherwise would. The higher wages obtained due to state restrictions on healthcare provision, restrictions on providing legal services and state-level occupational licensing can exacerbate inequality at the lower levels of the income distribution as well as the higher levels.

Workers and sole proprietors in the U.S. have been using government to restrict entry into occupations since the country was founded. In the past such restrictions were often drawn on racial or ethnic lines. In their Pulitzer Prize-winning history of New York City, Gotham, historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace write about New York City cartmen in the 1820s:

American-born carters complained to the city fathers that Irish immigrants, who had been licensed during the war [of 1812] while Anglo-Dutchmen were off soldiering, were undercutting established rates and stealing customers. Mayor Colden limited future alien licensing to dirt carting, a field the Irish quickly dominated. When they continued to challenge the Anglo-Americans in other areas, the Society of Cartmen petitioned the Common Council to reaffirm their “ancient privileges”. The municipal government agreed, rejecting calls for the decontrol of carting, as the business and trade of the city depended on in it, and in 1826 the council banned aliens from carting, pawnbroking, and hackney-coach driving; soon all licensed trades were closed to them.

Modern occupational licensing is the legacy of these earlier, successful efforts to protect profits by limiting entry, often of “undesirables”. Today’s occupational licensing is no longer a response to racial or ethnic prejudices, but it has similar results: It protects the earning power of established providers.

Throughout America’s history the economy has been relatively dynamic, and this dynamism has made it difficult for businesses to earn profits for long periods of time; only 12% of the companies on the Fortune 500 in 1955 were still on the list in 2015. In a properly functioning capitalist economy, newer, poorer firms will regularly supplant older, richer firms and this economic churn tempers inequality.

The same churn occurs among the highest echelon of individuals as well. An increasing number of the Forbes 400 are self-made, often from humble beginnings. In 1984, 99 people on the list inherited their fortune and were not actively growing it. By 2014 only 28 people were in the same position. Meanwhile, the percentage of the Forbes 400 who are largely self-made increased from 43% to 69% over the same period.

But this dynamism may be abating and excessive regulation is likely a factor. For example, the rate of new-bank formation from 1990 – 2010 was about 100 banks per year. Since 2010, the rate has fallen to about three per year. Researchers have attributed some of the decline of small banks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which increased compliance costs that disproportionately harm small banks. Fewer banks means less competition and higher prices.

Another recent example of how a lack of competition can increase profits and inequality is EpiPen. The price of EpiPen—a medicine used to treat severe allergic reactions to things like peanuts—has increased dramatically since 2011. This price increase was possible because there are almost no good substitutes for EpiPen, and the lack of substitutes can be attributed to the FDA and other government policies that have insulated EpiPen’s maker, Mylan, from market competition. Meanwhile, the compensation of Mylan’s CEO Heather Bresch increased by 671% from 2007 to 2015. I doubt that Bresch’s compensation would have increased by such a large amount without the profits of EpiPen.

Letting firms and workers compete in the marketplace fosters economic growth and can help dampen inequality. To the extent that wealth inequality is an issue we don’t need more regulation and redistribution to fix it: We need more competition.

This week, I’ve written two articles about different types of tradeoffs that economists think about when they evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed public policies. One type of tradeoff relates to the costs that consumers and businesses incur in exchange for the benefits policies will achieve, while a second type of tradeoff involves countervailing risks that sometimes increase as policies aim to reduce other risks.

An example of the first type of tradeoff, involving benefits and costs, comes from energy efficiency regulations for appliances. These regulations do produce some benefits involving reduced emissions, but entire classes of very important costs are routinely overlooked by regulatory agencies. When an agency doesn’t count what consumers give up in exchange for the good things policies produce, there is a greater chance people will be made worse off by a policy. That’s bad news.

Here is a relevant portion of an op-ed I wrote published in the Washington Times:

The Department of Energy sets energy conservation standards that limit the amount of electricity that can be used by home appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. These sweeping regulations affect nearly every American consumer. The department claims its rules address an imminent problem — environmental degradation — and argues that its conservation rules produce two main benefits: First, more energy-efficient appliances use less energy, so we all release fewer emissions into the atmosphere. Second, by using less energy, consumers may save money over time on monthly utility bills.

Sounds like a win-win situation, right? Not so fast.

We haven’t considered the costs of these regulations. Consumers care about their utility bills and the environment, but they also care about how well a product works, its appearance, whether the product comes with or without a warranty, the purchase price, and countless other things. When product attributes change as a result of regulations, these are costs to consumers. But the costs are ignored by regulators at the Energy Department. Regulators do consider some costs, like how much more appliance makers will have to pay when they are forced to comply with new rules, but the costs to consumers — whom we should care most about — are systematically overlooked.

In a second article, published in US News and World Report, I show how tradeoffs can involve more than just benefits and costs (which are valued in monetary terms). Tradeoffs can also involve risks. An example of a risk tradeoff comes from proposed legislation in New Jersey that targets distracted driving. The bill would ban drivers from engaging in “any” activity unrelated to driving that might interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle in the state. Some have said the bill’s language is so expansive that drinking a cup of coffee while driving would be banned.

The distracted driving bill has the potential to create what economists call “risk tradeoffs,” which occur when the mitigation of one risk simultaneously increases the risk of another. This bill addresses an all-too-real danger, but any law that prevents people from drinking coffee behind the wheel is going to increase at least one other risk: the risk created by drowsy drivers on the roads.

With fewer people drinking coffee on the roads, that means more sleepy truck drivers hauling sixteen wheelers at 2am. Is that a risk worth bearing in exchange for fewer distracted drivers? That’s a difficult question that will involve careful analysis to answer.

Risk tradeoffs are actually pretty ubiquitous, and involve far more than just Jersey drivers.

One of the most common ways new policies create risk tradeoffs is through “substitution effects.” For example, when a pesticide is banned, farmers usually switch to a different pesticide instead. The new chemical may be safer than the banned one, but it could also be more dangerous. Sometimes risks are simply shifted from one group of people to another. A new pesticide might reduce the risk from eating residue left on fruit in the supermarket, but at the same time, it could create new risks for farmers who work among the sprayed fruit.

Considering these kinds of tradeoffs—benefit/cost and risk/risk—is what rational decision making is all about. Any good economists is trained to think about these things when evaluating proposed policies. If legislators and regulators are going to use the resources we entrust them with wisely, we should all demand they think like economists too.

Local governments reluctant to issue new debt despite low interest rates

August 10, 2016

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite historically low interest rates municipal governments and voters don’t have the appetite for new debt. Municipal bond issuances have dropped to 20-year lows (1.6 percent) as governments pass on infrastructure improvements. There are a few reasons for that: weak tax revenues, fewer federal dollars, and competing budgetary pressures. […]

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State Labor Force Changes And The Need For A Flexible Labor Market

August 5, 2016

The figure below is from my latest Forbes column and shows the percentage change in each state’s labor force from June 2007, just before the recession started, to June 2016. There is substantial variation across the 50 states. Click here to read the whole thing.

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Congestion taxes can make society worse off

July 21, 2016

A new paper by Jeffrey Brinkman in the Journal of Urban Economics (working version here) analyzes two phenomena that are pervasive in urban economics—congestion costs and agglomeration economies. What’s interesting about this paper is that it formalizes the tradeoff that exists between the two. As stated in the abstract: “Congestion costs in urban areas are […]

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Recessions Don’t Have The Same Impact On Every City

July 19, 2016

Here is a link to my latest piece on Forbes.com New research shows that some local economies avoid slumps during national recessions and that an educated population and flexible housing supply can help. Recessions Don’t Have The Same Impact On Every City  

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Pokémon Go Represents the Best of Capitalism

July 14, 2016

An article uploaded to Vox.com by Timothy Lee earlier this week, “Pokémon Go is everything that is wrong with late capitalism,”has caused quite a stir, since it was fairly critical of the “Pokémon Go economy.” Given the popularity of the game though (and our concern that some players would be alarmed that their lighthearted entertainment was […]

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Does the New Markets Tax Credit Program work?

June 29, 2016

Location-based programs that provide tax credits to firms and investors that locate in particular areas are popular among politicians of both parties. Democrats tend to support them because they are meant to revitalize poorer or rural areas. In a recent speech about the economy, presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton spoke favorably about two of them: the […]

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