Earlier this year Amazon narrowed down the list of potential cities to site its second headquarters. Applicants are now waiting out the selection process. It’s unclear when Amazon will make its choice, but that hasn’t stopped many from speculating who the likely contenders are. Varying sources report Atlanta, Boston, and Washington D.C. at the top of the list. The cities that didn’t make the cut are no doubt envious of the finalists, having just missed out on the potential for a $5 billion facility and 50,000 jobs. The second HQ is supposed to be as significant for economic growth as the company’s first site, which according to Amazon’s calculations contributed an additional $38 billion to Seattle’s economy between 2010 and 2016. There is clearly a lot to be gained by the winner. But there are also many costs. Whichever city ends up winning the bid will be changed forever. What’s left out of the discussion is how the bidding process and corporate incentives affect the country.
Although the details of the proposals are not made public, each finalist is likely offering some combination of tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives in return for the company’s choice to locate in their city. The very bidding process necessitates a lot of time and effort by many parties. It will certainly seem “worth it” to the winning party, but the losers aren’t getting back the time and effort they spent.
This practice of offering incentives for businesses has been employed by states and localities for decades, with increased usage over time. Targeted economic development incentives can take the form of tax exemptions, abatements, regulatory relief, and taxpayer assistance. They are but one explicit cost paid by states and cities looking to secure business, and there is a growing literature that suggests these policies are more costly than meets the eye.
First, there’s the issue of economic freedom. Recent Mercatus research suggests that there may be a tradeoff to offering economic development incentives like the ones that Amazon is receiving. Economists John Dove and Daniel Sutter find that states that spend more on targeted development incentives as a percentage of gross state product also have less overall economic freedom. The theoretical reasoning behind this is not very clear, but Dove and Sutter propose that it could be because state governments that use more subsidies or tax breaks to attract businesses will also spend more or raise taxes for everyone else in their state, resulting in less equitable treatment of their citizens and reducing overall economic freedom.
The authors define an area as having more economic freedom if it has lower levels of government spending, taxation, and labor market restrictions. They use the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America Index (EFNA) to measure this. Of the three areas within the EFNA index, labor market freedom is the most affected by targeted economic development incentives. This means that labor market regulation such as the minimum wage, government employment, and union density are all significantly related to the use of targeted incentives.
Economic freedom can be ambiguous, however, and it’s sometimes hard to really grasp its impact on our lives. It sounds nice in theory, but because of its vagueness, it may not seem as appealing as a tangible economic development incentive package and the corresponding business attached to it. Economic freedom is associated with a series of other, more tangible benefits, including higher levels of income and faster economic growth. There’s also evidence that greater economic freedom is associated with urban development.
Not only is the practice of offering targeted incentives associated with lower economic freedom, but it is also indicative of other issues. Economists Peter Calcagno and Frank Hefner have found that states with budget issues, high tax and regulatory burdens, and poorly trained labor forces are also more likely to offer targeted incentives as a way to offset costly economic conditions. Or, in other words, targeted development incentives can be – and often are – used to compensate for a less than ideal business climate. Rather than reform preexisting fiscal or regulatory issues within a state, the status quo and the use of targeted incentives is the more politically feasible option.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Amazon’s bidding process is the effect it has on our culture. Ideally, economic development policy should be determined by healthy economic competition between states. In practice, it has evolved into more of an unhealthy interaction between private interests and political favor. Economists Joshua Jansa and Virginia Gray refer to this as cultural capture. They find increases in business political contributions to be positively correlated with state subsidy spending. Additionally, they express concern over the types of firms that these subsidies attract. There is a selection bias for targeted incentives to systematically favor “flighty firms” or firms that will simply relocate if better subsidies are offered by another state, or potentially threaten to leave in an effort to extract more subsidies.
None of these concerns even address the question of whether targeted incentives actually achieve their intended goals. The evidence does not look good. In a review of the literature by my colleague Matthew Mitchell, and me, we found that of the studies that evaluate the effect of targeted incentives on the broader economy, only one study found a positive effect, whereas four studies found unanimously negative effects. Thirteen studies (half of the sample) found no statistically significant effect, and the remaining papers found mixed results in which some companies or industries won, but at the expense of others.
In addition to these unseen costs on the economy, some critics are beginning to question whether being chosen by Amazon is even worth it. Amazon’s first headquarters has been considered a catalyst for the city’s tech industry, but local government and business leaders have raised concerns about other possibly related issues such as gentrification, rising housing prices, and persistent construction and traffic congestion. There is less research on this, but it is worth considering.
It is up to each city’s policymakers to decide whether these trade-offs are worth it. I would argue, however, that much of the evidence points to targeted incentives – like the ones that cities are using to attract Amazon’s business – as having more costs than benefits. Targeted economic development incentives may seem to offer a lot of tangible benefits, but their unseen costs should not be overlooked. From the perspective of how they benefit each state’s economy as a whole, targeted incentives are detrimental to economic freedom as well as our culture surrounding corporate handouts. Last but not least, they may often be an attempt to cover up other issues that are unattractive to businesses.