Category Archives: Crony Capitalism

The unseen costs of Amazon’s HQ2 Site Selection

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.

Mutant Capitalism rears its ugly head in Arlington

Confectionery-giant Nestlé plans to move its U.S. headquarters from California to 1812 North Moore in the Rosslyn area of Arlington in the next few years. This should be great news for the people of Arlington—a world-famous company has decided that Arlington County is the best place to be in the U.S. This must be due to our educated workforce and high quality of life, right?

Maybe. The real attraction might also be the $6 million of state handouts to Nestlé, along with an additional $6 million from Arlington County. Government handouts like these have become a way of life in the U.S. even though the results are often underwhelming.

Federal programs such as the New Markets Tax Credit Program have had at best small effects on economic development, and there is a good chance they just reallocate economic activity from one place to another rather than generate new economic activity. Local programs like Tax Increment Financing appear to largely reallocate economic activity as well. These programs might be good for the neighborhood or city that gets the handout, but it doesn’t help the residents of nearby places who are forced to contribute via their tax dollars.

In the Nestlé case, all of Virginia’s taxpayers are paying for Nestlé to locate in Arlington, which already has a relatively strong economy and is one of the wealthiest counties in Virginia. Why should taxpayers in struggling counties such as Buchanan or Dickenson County be forced to subsidize a company in Arlington? Government handouts to firms are often regressive since companies rarely want to locate in areas with a low-skill—and thus low-income—workforce. Everyone pays, but the most economically successful areas get the benefits.

Government officials often praise the jobs that these deals create and the Nestlé deal is no different: According to the performance agreement, Nestlé must create and maintain 748 new full-time jobs. And even if we ignore the fact that jobs are an economic cost, not a benefit, a closer look reveals that projections and reality usually diverge. For example, Buffalo awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to SolarCity, which promised to create 5,000 jobs. They have since revised that number down to 1,460. There are numerous other examples where the cost per job turned out to be higher than initially projected.

The grant performance agreement also estimates that Nestlé will provide $18.2 million in taxes to the county over the next 10 years, more than enough to offset the grant expenditure. But this doesn’t take into account what would have happened absent the handout. Perhaps some other company would have relocated here for free. Or a local company, or collection of companies, would have eventually rented out the space.

Government grants may also distort the real estate market: There’s a good chance no company had occupied 1812 North Moore because the rent was too high. If so, part of this grant is a handout to the owners of the building, Monday Properties, since now it does not have to lower its rent to attract a tenant. This may lead other property companies to lobby for and expect government handouts to help them find tenants.

Government grants often distort the economy by treating out-of-state companies differently than in-state companies. They encourage relocation by subsidizing it, which discourages expansion. A better strategy is to create a simple, non-intrusive business environment that treats all businesses equally.

Government grants are a characteristic of what my colleague Chris Koopman calls Mutant Capitalism and are antithetical to real capitalism and free enterprise. Capitalism involves businesses competing for consumers on an even playing field—there is no room for government favors that tilt the playing field towards one business or another.

New York’s Buffalo Billion initiative has been underwhelming

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’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).


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.)


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.


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.

Pennsylvania taxpayer’s new “boutique” apartments

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.

Education, Innovation, and Urban Growth

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. This is true at both the metropolitan level and the city level. The figure below plots the population growth of 30 large U.S. cities from 1970 – 2013 on the vertical axis and the share of the city’s 25 and over population that had at least a bachelor’s degree in 1967 on the horizontal axis. (The education data for the cities are here. I am using the political city’s population growth and the share of the central city population with a bachelor’s degree or more from the census data linked to above.)

BA, city growth 1

As shown in the figure there is a strong, positive relationship between the two variables: The correlation coefficient is 0.61. It is well known that over the last 50 years cities in warmer areas have been growing while cities in colder areas have been shrinking, but in this sample the cities in warmer areas also tended to have a better educated population in 1967. Many of the cities known today for their highly educated populations, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., also had highly educated populations in 1967. Colder manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Newark had less educated workforces in 1967 and subsequently less population growth.

The above figure uses data on both warm and cold cities, but the relationship holds for only cold cities as well. Below is the same graph but only depicts cities that have a January mean temperature below 40°F. Twenty out of the 30 cities fit this criteria.

BA, city growth 2

Again, there is a strong, positive relationship. In fact it is even stronger; the correlation coefficient is 0.68. Most of the cities in the graph lost population from 1970 – 2013, but the cities that did grow, such as Columbus, Seattle, and Denver, all had relatively educated populations in 1967.

There are several reasons why an educated population and urban population growth are correlated. One is that a faster accumulation of skills and human capital spillovers in cities increase wages which attracts workers. Also, the large number of specialized employers located in cities makes it easier for workers, especially high-skill workers, to find employment. Cities are also home to a range of consumption amenities that attract educated people, such as a wide variety of shops, restaurants, museums, and sporting events.

Another reason why an educated workforce may actually cause city growth has to do with its ability to adjust and innovate. On average, educated workers tend to be more innovative and better able to learn new skills. When there is an negative, exogenous shock to an industry, such as the decline of the automobile industry or the steel industry, educated workers can learn new skills and create new industries to replace the old ones. Many of the mid-20th century workers in Detroit and other Midwestern cities decided to forego higher education because good paying factory jobs were plentiful. When manufacturing declined those workers had a difficult time learning new skills. Also, the large firms that dominated the economic landscape, such as Ford, did not support entrepreneurial thinking. This meant that even the educated workers were not prepared to create new businesses.

Local politicians often want to protect local firms in certain industries through favorable treatment and regulation. But often this protection harms newer, innovative firms since they are forced to compete with the older firms on an uneven playing field. Political favoritism fosters a stagnant economy since in the short-run established firms thrive at the expense of newer, more innovative startups. Famous political statements such as “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” helped mislead workers into thinking that government was willing and able to protect their employers. But governments at all levels were unable to stop the economic forces that battered U.S. manufacturing.

To thrive in the 21st century local politicians need to foster economic environments that encourage innovation and ingenuity. The successful cities of the future will be those that are best able to innovate and to adapt in an increasingly complex world. History has shown us that an educated and entrepreneurial workforce is capable of overcoming economic challenges, but to do this people need to be free to innovate and create. Stringent land-use regulations, overly-burdensome occupational licensing, certificate-of-need laws, and other unnecessary regulations create barriers to innovation and make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to create the firms and industries of the future.

“Regulatory Certainty” as a Justification for Regulating

A key principle of good policy making is that regulatory agencies should define the problem they are seeking to solve before finalizing a regulation. Thus, it is odd that in the economic analysis for a recent proposed rule related to greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites “regulatory certainty” as a justification for regulating. It seems almost any regulation could be justified on these grounds.

The obvious justification for regulating carbon dioxide emissions would be to limit harmful effects of climate change. However, as the EPA’s own analysis states:

the EPA anticipates that the proposed Electric Generating Unit New Source Greenhouse Gas Standards will result in negligible CO2 emission changes, energy impacts, quantified benefits, costs, and economic impacts by 2022.

The reason the rule will result in no benefits or costs, according to the EPA, is because the agency anticipates:

even in the absence of this rule, existing and anticipated economic conditions will lead electricity generators to choose new generation technologies that meet the proposed standard without the need for additional controls.

So why issue a new regulation? If the EPA’s baseline assessment is correct (i.e. it is making an accurate prediction about what the world would look like in absence of the regulation), then the regulation provides no benefits since it causes no deviations from that baseline. If the EPA’s baseline turns out to be wrong, a “wait and see” approach likely makes more sense. This approach may be more sensible, especially given all the inherent uncertainties surrounding predicting future energy prices and all of the unintended consequences that often result from regulating.

Instead, the EPA cites “regulatory certainty” as a justification for regulating, presumably because businesses will now be able to anticipate what emission standards will be going forward, and they can now invest with confidence. But announcing there will be no new regulation for a period of time also provides certainty. Of course, any policy can always change, whether the agency decides to issue a regulation or not. That’s why having clearly-stated goals and clearly-understood factors that guide regulatory decisions is so important.

Additionally, there are still costs to regulating, even if the EPA has decided not to count these costs in its analysis. Just doing an economic analysis is a cost. So is using agency employees’ time to enforce a new regulation. News outlets suggest “industry-backed lawsuits are inevitable” in response to this regulation. This too is a cost. If costs exceed benefits, the rule is difficult to justify.

One might argue that because of the 2007 Supreme Court ruling finding that CO2 is covered under the Clean Air Act, and the EPA’s subsequent endangerment finding related to greenhouse gases, there is some basis for the argument that uncertainty is holding back investment in new power plants. However, if this is true then this policy uncertainty should be accounted for in the agency’s baseline. If the proposed regulation alleviates some of this uncertainty, and leads to additional power plant construction and energy creation, that change is a benefit of the regulation and should be identified in the agency’s analysis.

The EPA also states it “intends this rule to send a clear signal about the current and future status of carbon capture and storage technology” because the agency wants to create the “incentive for supporting research, development, and investment into technology to capture and store CO2.”

However, by identifying the EPA’s preferred method of reducing CO2 emissions from new power plants, the agency may discourage businesses from investing in other promising new technologies. Additionally, by setting different standards for new and existing power plants, the EPA is clearly favoring one set of companies at the expense of another. This is a form of cronyism.

The EPA needs to get back to policymaking 101. That means identifying a problem before regulating, and tailoring regulations to address the specific problem at hand.

Do We Need a Strategic Cherry Reserve?

What do national public interest and cherries have in common? If you follow national politics on a regular basis, the answer probably will not surprise you. It is federal regulation. This week, the USDA issued an interim rule that revised the deadlines for cherry growers submitting their plans to comply with or applications to divert from the centrally planned production of tart cherries. The plan is approved each year by the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, which is elected by cherry growers. The USDA has the power to sanction any grower that deviates from the plan. Yes, the United States has a federally imposed cartel for cherries (among many other agricultural products; you can check here if your favorite fruit made the list). Take that, Canada.

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act, which gave the USDA power to regulate the volume of cherries produced in the country, originally passed in 1937. It is doubtful that it had much economic rationale back then (other than granting privilege to favored interest groups). It certainly makes little sense today. Granted that as a key ingredient in cherry pies tart cherries are dear to many Americans, but counting them as “agricultural commodities with a national public interest,” as the federal government does under the Act, is at best an overstatement. In the end, the best way to protect the national public interest is to for the federal government to stop telling farmers when and how to grow their crops.

Nevada’s new film tax credits to benefit casinos

Until recently, Nevada was one of a handful of states that did not offer film companies tax incentives. With the passage of Senate Bill 165 last month qualified film producers are eligible for transferable film credits valued at 20 percent of production costs. Lawmakers were in part persuaded by testimony (offered by film maker Nicholas Cage) that such credits would result in a film boom for Nevada. Some features of the credits: they are limited to $20 million a year. Productions that shoot 60 percent of their work in Nevada and spend between $500,000 and $40 million may earn a credit for 15 percent to 19 percent of total in-state, qualified expenses. Each production is capped at $6 million in credits.

Nevada does not tax individual or corporate income. The credits may be applied to payroll taxes, casino taxes and insurance premium taxes. Gasoline, cigarette, liquor, sales, live entertainment and property taxes aren’t eligible.

Part of the value of Nevada’s credits to film companies is that they are transferable. The credits can be sold by film companies to other Nevada businesses, such as casinos, becoming, “the coin of the realm.”

The Las Vegas Sun News explains how the new program will help generate a niche financial industry of brokers to help parties buy and sell credits. For example, a film company with a $1 million production and 15 percent credit is awarded $150,000 by the state of Nevada. If the film company only pays $50,000 in payroll taxes, that leaves $100,000 in credits on the table. This credit can then be sold at discount (let’s say 80 percent of the value of the remaining credit) to an interested buyer. Thus, a casino with a $100,000 tax liability can buy a tax credit from the film company at a price of $80,000.

The legislature promises to study the effectiveness of the program after a five-year trial period.


Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.





Don’t make us drive these cattle over the cliff

First a brief note: I am now blogging at the American Spectator on economic issues. I invite you to visit the inaugural posts. Last week, I covered the fiscal cliff. Like many others, I also marvel at the audacity of the pork contained therein.

Lately the headlines have given me a flashback to 1990 and those first undergrad economics classes. And not just econ but also U.S. history and the American experience with price floors and ceilings. In this post I’ll discuss the floors.

As I note at The Spectacle one of the matters settled by the American Taxpayer Relief Act is the extension of dairy price supports from the 2008 farm bill. Now, Congress won’t be “forced to charge $8 gallon for milk.” To me, nothing screams government price-fixing more than this threat aimed to scare small children and the parents who buy their food.

Chris Edwards explains how America’s dairy subsidy programs work in Milk Madness. Since the 1930’s the federal government  has set the minimum price to be charged for dairy. A misguided idea from the start, the point of the program was to ensure that dairy farmers weren’t hurt by falling prices during the Great Depression. When market prices fall below the government set price the government agrees to buy up any excess butter, dry milk or cheese that is produced. Thusly, dairy prices are kept artificially high which stimulates more demand.

According to Edwards’ study, the OECD found that U.S. dairy policies create a 26 percent “implicit tax” on milk, a regressive tax that affects low-income families in particular. Taxpayers pay to keep food prices artificially high, generate waste, and prevent local farmers from entering a caretlized market.

Now for the cows. The recession revealed that the nation has an oversupply of them. The New York Times reports that rapid expansion in the U.S. dairy market driven by increased global demand for milk products came to a sudden halt in 2008. Farmers were left with cows that needed to be milked regardless of the slump in world prices. The excess dry milk was then sold to the government but only at a price that was set above what the market demanded.

In other words, in a world without price supports, farmers could have sold the milk for less at market and consumers would have enjoyed cheaper butter, cheese and baby formula. Instead, the government stepped in, bought $91 million in milk powder so the farmer could get an above-market price and keep supporting an excess of milk cows. Rather than downsize the dairy based on market signals (and sell part of the herd to other dairy farmers, or the butcher) farmers take the subsidy and keep one too many cows pumping out more milk than is demanded.

It turns out auctioning a herd is not something all farmers are anxious to do. Some may look for additional governmental assistance to keep their cattle fed in spite of dropping prices, increased feed costs, and bad weather. To be sure eliminating farm subsidies would produce a temporary shock (a windfall for farmers and sticker shock for consumers), but in the long run as markets adjust everyone benefits.Dairy cows in the sale ring at the Warragul cattle sales, Victoria, [2]

New Zealand did it. Thirty years later and costs are lower for consumers, farmers are thrivingenvironmental practices have improved, and organic farming is growing. While politicians and the farm lobby may continue pushing for inefficient agricultural policy in spite of the nation’s fiscal path,as Robert Samuelson at Real Clear Politics writes, “If we can’t kill farm subsidies, what can we kill?”