Category Archives: Federalism

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.

The use of locally-imposed selective taxes to fund public pension liabilities

Many eyes are on Kentucky policymakers as they grapple with finding a solution to their $40 billion state-reported unfunded public pension liability. As talks of a potential pension bill surface, various proposals have been made by legislators, but very few have gained traction. One such proposal stands out from the rest. A proposal that has since been shut down suggested imposing selective taxes on tobacco, prescription opiates, and outsourced labor to generate revenue to direct towards paying down the state’s pension debt. Despite its short-lived tenure, this selective tax proposal reflects a recent trend in pension funding reform; a trend that policymakers should be wary of. Implementing new taxes on select goods or services may seem like a good idea as it could, in theory, potentially raise additional revenues, but experience at the local level suggests otherwise.

In chapter 12 of a new Mercatus book on sin taxes, NYU professor Thad Calabrese examines the practice of locally-imposed selective taxes that are used to fund public pension liabilities and doesn’t find much evidence to support their continued usage.

Selective taxes are sales taxes that target specific goods and are also known as ‘sin taxes’ because of their popular usage in taxing less healthy goods such as cigarettes, junk food, or alcohol. In the examples that Calabrese examines, selective taxes are used to target insurance premiums as revenue sources for pensions.

Only a select few states have begun this practice – including Illinois, Pennsylvania, as well as municipalities in West Virginia and Missouri – but it may become more popular if courts begin to restrict the way in which current pension benefits can be modified. Once benefits are taken off the table as an avenue for reform, like in Illinois, policymakers will feel more pressure to find new revenue sources.

The proposal in Kentucky may seem appealing to policymakers, especially because of its potential to raise $600 million a year, but this estimate overlooks the unintended effects that such new taxes could facilitate. Thankfully, the proposal did not go through, but I think some time should be spent looking at what similar proposals have looked like at the local level, so that other states do not get tempted pick up where Kentucky left off.

Calabrese draws on the experiences in Pennsylvania and Illinois to examine how these taxes have operated, how the decoupling of setting and financing employee benefits tends to lead to these taxes, and how the use of these taxes is associated with significantly underfunded pension systems. Below I highlight Pennsylvania’s experience and caution against further usage of this mechanism for pension funding.

How it works (or doesn’t)

In 1895, Pennsylvania implemented a 2 percent tax on out-of-state fire and casualty insurance companies’ premiums on in-state property and then earmarked this for distribution to local governments to pay for pensions. Act 205 of 1984 replaced the original act in which the state of Pennsylvania allocated pension aid based on where the insured property was located and instead the new allocation was based on the number of public employees in a locality.

Calabrese explains how the funds were distributed:

“Each public employee was considered a ‘unit,’ and uniformed employees (such as police and fire) each represented two units. The pool of insurance tax revenue collected by the state was then divided by the sum of municipal units to arrive at a unit value. This distribution could subsidize local governments’ pension expenditures up to 100 percent of the annual cost. In 1985, this tax generated $62.3 million in revenues; as a result, each unit value was worth $1,146 – meaning that local governments received $1,146 for pension funding for each public employee and an additional $1,146 for pension funding for each uniformed public employee. Importantly, 75 percent of municipalities received enough funding from this revenue in 1985 to fully offset their pension costs.”

The new mechanism raised more funds, but it also unexpectedly raised costs. If a municipality had to contribute less than the $1,146 annually for a regular employee or $2,292 for a uniformed employee, for example, the municipality was essentially incentivized to increase benefits to public employees up to this limit, because local public employees would receive increased benefits at no direct budgetary cost to the municipality.

“…the tax likely increased insurance costs for residents and businesses (and then only a small fraction of the cost), but not directly for the government employer. Further, this system privileged benefits relative to other compensation, because these payments (borne at least statutorily by out-of-state companies) could only be used for financing pensions and not other forms of compensation.”

A tax originally implemented to fund pension costs statewide resulted in a system that encouraged more generous benefits.

Despite increased subsidies from the state, only 38 percent of municipalities received sufficient allocated funds from the pool to fully offset the costs of pensions. This was because annual pension contributions were growing at a faster rate than the rate at which the subsidy from the state insurance tax was growing.

To highlight a city with severely distressed pension plans, Philadelphia continued to struggle even following the implementation of the state insurance tax. The police pension plan, nonuniformed plan, and firefighter pension plan were all only 49, 47, and 45 percent funded, respectively. In 2009, the City Council passed a temporary 1 percentage point increase in their sales tax and when the temporary rate was renewed in 2014, any revenue in excess of $120 million was dedicated to the city’s pension plans. Additionally, the state permitted the city to pass a $2 per pack cigarette tax to fund a planned budget deficit for the school system; likely because its income tax capacity was largely exhausted.

Philadelphia’s new taxes technically generated new revenues, but they did little to improve the funding of the city’s pension plans.

The selective taxes implemented to fund pension liabilities in Pennsylvania were effectively a Band-Aid that was two small for the state’s pension funding problem, which in turn required the addition of more, insufficient pension Band-Aids. It merely created a public financing system that encouraged pension benefit growth which led to the passage of additional laws requiring certain pension funding levels. And when these funding levels were not met, even more laws were passed that provided temporary pension funding relief, which further grew liabilities for distressed municipalities.

Act 44 became law in 1993 and provided plan sponsors pension funding relief, but primarily by allowing sponsors to alter actuarial assumptions and thereby reduce required pension contributions. Another law delayed funding by manipulating how the required contribution was calculated, rather than providing any permanent fix.

Moving forward

Selective taxes for the purpose of funding pensions are still a relatively rare practice, but as pension liabilities grow and the landscape of reform options changes, it may become increasingly attractive to policymakers. As Calabrese has demonstrated in his book chapter, however, we should be wary of this avenue as it may only encourage the growth of pension liabilities without addressing the problem in any meaningful way. Reforming the structure of the pension plan or the level of benefits provided to current or future employees would provide the most long-term solution.

A solution with the long-term in mind and that doesn’t involve touching current beneficiaries includes moving future workers to defined contribution plans; plans that are better suited to keeping costs contained. The ballooning costs aren’t stemming solely from overly generous plan benefits, but more seriously are the result of their poor management and incentives for funding, only exacerbated by poor accounting practices. The problem is certainly complicated and moving towards the use of defined contribution plans wouldn’t eliminate all issues, but it would at least set governments on a more sustainable path.

At the very least, policymakers interested in long-term solutions should be cautioned against using selective taxes to fund pensions.

Solving the Public Pension Crisis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a public policy conference that brought together many scholars who study public pensions to share what they have learned from their research. The crisis – growing unfunded pension liabilities and resulting fiscal distress for states and municipalities – laid as the foundation of the day. Hosted by GMU’s Law & Economics Center, the conference featured several panel discussions framed around different aspects of how to both diagnose the cause of this growing problem and hopefully find solutions to address the problem.

Professor Robert Inman of the University of Pennsylvania presented a helpful categorization of the different avenues to address the public pension crisis. He explained that as a reformer, you can either put stock in (1) courts, (2) markets, or (3) politics to solve the public policy problem. The next question is, which avenue is most effective at making pensions solvent while also keeping promises to beneficiaries?

First, take the courts. In municipal bankruptcy cases like that of Central Falls, Rhode Island; Stockton, California; and Detroit, Michigan, courts have ruled that reductions in benefits of current public workers and retirees are legally allowed. Until these rulings, however, it was thought to be almost impossible do such a thing. These cities employed reforms ranging from cutting payments to reducing current benefit formulas. By contrast, the state supreme court of Illinois has ruled similar cuts unconstitutional. It will be interesting to see how these conflicting legal precedents will affect future cases and what it will mean for the benefits of public workers.

However this legal discussion unfolds, it will certainly affect the courts as an avenue for solving the pension crisis. Strict rulings prevent states from cutting pension benefits of current workers, but they also require states to keep their promises, especially when it is politically hardest – during times of fiscal stress.

Times of fiscal stress are often prompted by a combination of factors. Growing unfunded liabilities, not enough cash in reserves, and poorly structured tax systems can all come together to really put policymakers in a tough spot and often leaves a large bill for taxpayers. A struggling economy on top of all of this can really exacerbate the situation. The main difference between the first three things and a struggling economy is that the latter is largely out of a policymaker’s control.

Despite this, many policymakers rely on the market to get them out of tough times. From the policymaker’s perspective “relying on the market” to solve the pension crisis usually means something different than what it means for an economist. This phrase for the policymaker usually entails reaping the benefits of more taxes generated from an economic boom or relying on high investment returns to improve the performance of pension funds.

Not only are the timing of economic booms fairly unpredictable, but they also don’t guarantee to solve all of your problems when they do occur. The growing city of Austin, Texas, for example, is facing budgetary pressures and only has enough money to pay for about two-thirds of the benefits workers have already earned, demonstrating that even good economic times don’t exempt you from pension problems.

The good news is that what we learn from market interactions can be transferred to the political sphere in order to increase our understanding. One lesson we learn from markets is that individuals respond to incentives and that the institutional structure in which they act influences how this occurs. The importance of incentives and rules doesn’t change when going from markets to politics, but the way they manifest does.

At the Law and Economics conference, Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation explained how there is a tangled web of factors causing inappropriate pension funding behavior. These factors create misaligned incentives between fiduciaries and taxpayers. One way this has manifested is that the pension funding policy process has been captured by elected officials who are more concerned with near-term budget allocation than long-term solvency.

My colleague Eileen Norcross and her co-author Sheila Weinberg expanded more on the type of behavior that Randazzo spoke of. In their paper titled “A Judge in their Own Cause: GASB 67/68 and the continued mis-measurement of public sector liabilities” they review how policymakers are incentivized by state and local accounting guidelines to underreport the true value of their pension liabilities. Two new accounting rules were implemented in fiscal year 2015 in an attempt to improve this, but as Norcross and Weinberg’s findings suggest, they have not had their intended effects.

For example, there is evidence that one of the rules, GASB 67, is creating incentives for pension actuaries to project robust funding levels far into the future in order to avoid calculating and reporting large unfunded liabilities in the present.

They sum up the effects of both rules in their conclusion:

“Though these measures are justified in providing flexibility and practicality for governments, they only contribute to an artificial picture of state’s true fiscal results and thus affect important decisions on how states use resources.”

Their analysis demonstrates just how important it is to study the incentives present in both the measurement of and the governance of public pension funds. Luckily, there is also work being done that attempts to understand exactly what type of rules can improve incentives facing policymakers.

Another paper, presented by Professor Odd Stalebrink of Penn State, touched upon this by examining how governance structures affect the investment performance of public pension funds. He found that pension systems are more likely to meet their performance targets if they are governed by an institutional structure that (1) extends plan autonomy, (2) places emphasis on transparency, and (3) limits inefficient investment practices. In states that exhibit more corruption, however, Stalebrink noted that plans might actually be better off with less autonomy, while still focusing on transparency and improving efficiency.

The discussion of these papers along with many others at the conference underscored that pension problem in the states multifaceted one. The question of what avenue to employ reform efforts through does not have a simple answer. Growing unfunded pension liabilities are a result of many factors across market, political, and legal spheres. It only makes sense that effective solutions will revolve around an understanding of all three areas.

Proceedings of the conference will be published in a special symposium issue of Scalia Law School’s Journal of Law, Economics & Policy.

Eight years after the financial crisis: lessons from the most fiscally distressed cities

You’d think that eight years after the financial crisis, cities would have recovered. Instead, declining tax revenues following the economic downturn paired with growing liabilities have slowed recovery. Some cities exacerbated their situations with poor policy choices. Much could be learned by studying how city officials manage their finances in response to fiscal crises.

Detroit made history in 2013 when it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy after decades of financial struggle. Other cities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California had their own financial battles that also resulted in bankruptcy. Their policy decisions reflect the most extreme responses to fiscal crises.

You could probably count on both hands how many cities file for bankruptcy each year, but this is not an extremely telling statistic as cities often take many other steps to alleviate budget problems and view bankruptcy as a last resort. When times get tough, city officials often reduce payments into their pension systems, raise taxes – or when that doesn’t seem adequate – find themselves cutting services or laying off public workers.

It turns out that many municipalities weathered the 2008 recession without needing to take such extreme actions. Studying how these cities managed to recover more quickly than cities like Stockton provides interesting insight on what courses of action can help city officials better respond to fiscal distress.

A new Mercatus study examines the types of actions that public officials have taken under fiscal distress and then concludes with recommendations that could help future crises from occurring. Their empirical model finds that increased reserves, lower debt, and better tax structures all significantly improve a city’s fiscal health.

The authors, researchers Evgenia Gorina and Craig Maher, define fiscal distress as:

“the condition of local finances that does not permit the government to provide public services and meet its own operating needs to the extent to which these have been provided and met previously.”

In order to determine whether a city or county government is under fiscal distress, the authors study the actual actions taken by city officials between 2007 and 2012. Their approach is unique because it stands in contrast with previous literature that primarily looks to poorly performing financial indicators to measure fiscal distress. An example of such an indicator would be how much cash a government has on hand relative to its liabilities.

Although financial indicators can tell someone a lot about the fiscal condition of their locality, they are only a snapshot of financial resources on hand and don’t provide information on how previous policy choices got them to their current state. A robust analysis of a city’s financial health would require a deeper look. Looking at policy decisions as well as financial indicators can paint a more complete picture of just how financial resources are being managed.

The figure here displays the types of actions, or “fiscal distress episodes”, that the authors of the study found were the most common among cities in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As expected, you’ll see that bankruptcy occurs much less frequently than other courses of action. The top three most common attempts to meet fundamental operating needs and service requirements during times of fiscal distress include (1) large across-the-board budget cuts or cuts in services, (2) blanket reduction in employee salaries, and (3) unusual tax rate or fee increases.


Another thing that becomes clear from this figure is that public workers and taxpayers appear to be adversely affected by the most common fiscal episodes. Cuts in services, reductions in employee salaries, large tax increases, and layoffs all place much of the distress on these groups. By contrast, actions like fund transfers, deferring capital projects, or late budget enactment don’t directly affect public workers or taxpayers (at least in the short term).

I decided to break down how episodes affected public workers and taxpayers for each state examined in the sample. 91% of California’s municipal fiscal distress episodes directly affected public employees or the provision of public services, while the remaining 9% indirectly affected them. Michigan and Pennsylvania followed with 85% and 66% of episodes, respectively, directly affecting public workers or taxpayers through cuts in services, tax increases, or layoffs.

Many of these actions surely happen in tandem with each other in more distressed cities, but it seems that more often than not, the burden falls heavily on public workers and taxpayers.

The city officials who had to make these hard decisions obviously did so under financially and politically intense circumstances; what many, including researchers like Gorina and Maher, consider to be a fiscal crisis. In fact, 32 percent of the communities across the three states in their sample experienced fiscal distress which, on its own, sheds light on the magnitude of the 2007-2009 recession. A large motivator of Gorina and Maher’s research is to understand what characteristics of the cities who more quickly rebounded from the Great Recession allowed them to prevent hitting fiscal crisis stage in the first place.

They do so by testing the effect of a city’s pre-existing fiscal condition on their likelihood to undergo fiscal distress. After controlling for things like government type, size, and local economic factors, they found that cities that had larger reserves and lower debt tended to weather the recession better relative to other cities. More specifically, declining general revenue balance as a percent of general expenditures and increases in debt as a share of total revenue both increase the odds of fiscal distress for a city.

Additionally, the authors found that cities with a greater reliance on property taxes managed to weather the recession better than governments reliant on other revenue sources. This suggests that revenue structure, not just the amount of revenue raised, is an important determinant of fiscal health.

No city wants to end up like Detroit or Scranton. Policymakers in these cities were forced to make hard choices that were politically unpopular; often harming public employees and taxpayers. Officials can look to Gorina and Maher’s research to understand how they can prevent ending up in such dire situations.

When approaching municipal finances, each city’s unique situation should of course be taken into consideration. This requires looking at each city’s economic history and financial practices, similar to what my colleagues have done for Scranton. Combining each city’s financial context with principles of sound financial management can surely help more cities find and maintain a healthy fiscal path.

Fixing decades of fiscal distress in Scranton, PA

In new Mercatus research, Adam Millsap and I and unpack the causes for almost a quarter of a century of fiscal distress in Scranton, Pennsylvania and offer some recommendations for how the city might go forward.

Since 1992, Scranton has been designated as a distressed municipality under Act 47, a law intended to help financially struggling towns and cities implement reforms. Scranton is now on its fifth Recovery plan, and while there are signs that the city is making improvements, it still has to contend with a legacy of structural, fiscal and economic problems.

We begin by putting Scranton in historical context. The city, located in northeastern Pennsylvania was once a thriving industrial hub, manufacturing coal, iron and providing T-rails for railroad tracks. By 1930, Scranton’s population peaked and the city’s economy began to change. Gas and oil replaced coal. The spread of the automobile and trucking diminished demand for railroad transport. By the 1960s Scranton was a smaller service-based economy with a declining population. Perhaps most relevant to its current fiscal situation is that the number of government workers increased as both the city’s population and tax base declined between 1969 and 1980.

An unrelenting increase in spending and weak revenues prompted the city to seek Act 47 designation kicking off two decades of attempts to reign in spending and change the city’s economic fortunes.

Our paper documents the various recovery plans and the reasons the measures they recommended either proved temporary, ineffective, or simply “didn’t stick.” A major obstacle to cost controls in the city are the hurdle of collective bargaining agreements with city police and firefighters, protected under Act 111, that proved to be more binding than Act 47 recovery plans.

The end result is that Scranton is facing rapidly rising employee costs for compensation, health care and pension benefits in addition to a $20 million back-pay award. These bills have led the city to pursue short-term fiscal relief in the form of debt issuance, sale-leaseback agreements and reduced pension contributions. The city’s tax structure has been described as antiquated relying mainly on Act 511 local taxes (business privilege and mercantile business tax, Local Services Tax (i.e. commuter tax)), property taxes and miscellaneous revenues and fees.

Tackling these problems requires structural reforms including 1) tax reform that does not penalize workers or businesses for locating in the city, 2) pension reform that includes allowing workers to move to a defined contribution plan and 3) removing any barrier to entrepreneurship that might prevent new businesses from locating in Scranton. In addition we recommend several state-level reforms to laws that have made it harder to Scranton to control its finances namely collective bargaining reform that removes benefits from negotiation; and eliminating “budget-helping” band-aids that mask the true cost of pensions. Such band-aids include state aid for municipal pension and allowing localities to temporarily reduce payments during tough economic times. Each of these has only helped to sustain fiscal illusion – giving the city an incomplete picture of the true cost of pensions.

To date Scranton has made some progress including planned asset monetizations to bring in revenues to cover the city’s bills. Paying down debts and closing deficits is crucial but not enough. For Pennsylvania’s distressed municipalities to thrive again reforms must replace poor fiscal institutions with ones that promote transparency, stability and prudence. This is the main way in which Scranton (and other Pennsylvania cities) can compete for businesses and residents: by offering government services at lower cost and eliminating penalties and barriers to locating, working and living in Scranton.

How effective are HUD programs? No one knows.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has been in the news lately due to its policy proposal to ban smoking in public housing. HUD usually flys under the radar as far as federal agencies are concerned so many people are probably hearing about if for the first time and are unsure about what it does.

HUD was created as a cabinet-level agency in 1965. From its website, HUD’s mission:

“…is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.” 

HUD carries out its mission through numerous programs. On the HUD website over 100 programs and sub-programs are listed. Running that many programs is not cheap, and the graph below depicts the outlays for HUD and three other federal agencies for reference purposes from 1965 – 2014 in inflation adjusted dollars. The other agencies are the Dept. of Energy (DOE), the Dept. of Justice (DOJ), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

HUD outlays graph

HUD was the second largest agency by outlays in 2014 and for many years was consistently as large as the Department of Energy. It was larger than both the DOJ and the EPA over this period, yet those two agencies are much better known than HUD. Google searches for the DOJ, EPA and HUD return 566 million, 58.3 million, and 25.7 million results respectively.

For such a large agency HUD has managed to stay relatively anonymous outside of policy circles. This lack of public scrutiny has contributed to HUD being able to distribute billions of dollars through its numerous programs despite little examination into their effectiveness. To be fair HUD does make a lot of reports about their programs available, but these reports are often just stories about how much money was spent and what it was spent on rather than evaluations of a program’s effectiveness.

As an example, in 2009 the Partnership for Sustainable Communities program was started. It is an interagency program run by HUD, the EPA, and the Dept. of Transportation. The website for the program provides a collection of case studies about the various projects the program has supported. The case studies for the Euclid corridor project in Cleveland, the South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle, and the Central Corridor Light Rail project in Minneapolis are basically descriptions of the projects themselves and all of the federal and state money that was spent. The others contain similar content. Other than a few anecdotal data points the evidence for the success of the projects consists of quotes and assertions. In the summary of the Seattle project, for example, the last line is “Indeed, reflecting on early skepticism about the city’s initial investments in SLU, in 2011 a prominent local journalist concluded, “It’s hard not to revisit those debates…and acknowledge that the investment has paid off”. Yet there is no benchmarking in the report that can be used to compare the area before and after redevelopment along any metric of interest such as employment, median wage, resident satisfaction, tax revenue, etc.

The lack of rigorous program analysis is not unique to the Sustainable Communities program. The Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) is probably the best known HUD program. It distributes grants to municipalities and states that can be used on a variety of projects that benefit low and moderate income households. The program was started in 1975 yet relatively few studies have been done to measure its efficacy. The lack of informative evaluation of CDBG projects has even been recognized by HUD officials. Raphael Bostic, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Policy Development and Research for HUD from 2009 – 2012, has stated “For a program with the longevity of the CDBG, remarkably few evaluations have been conducted, so relatively little is known about what works” (Bostic, 2014). Other government entities have also taken notice. During the Bush administration (2001 – 08) the Office of Management and Budget created the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). Several HUD programs were rated as “ineffective” – including CDBG – or “moderately effective”. The assessments noted that “CDBG is unable to demonstrate its effectiveness” in developing viable urban communities and that the program’s performance measures “have a weak connection to the program purpose and do not focus on outcomes”.

Two related reasons for the limited evaluation of CDBG and other HUD programs are the lack of data and the high cost of obtaining what data are available. For example, Brooks and Sinitsyn (2014) had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the data necessary for their study. Furthermore, after obtaining the data, significant time and effort were needed to manipulate the data into a usable format since they “…received data in multiple different tables that required linking with little documentation” (p. 154).

HUD has significant effects on state and local policy even though it largely works behind the scenes. Regional economic and transportation plans are frequently funded by HUD grants and municipal planning agencies allocate scarce resources to the pursuit of additional grants that can be used for a variety of purposes. For those that win a grant the amount of the grant likely exceeds the cost of obtaining it. For the others, however, the resources spent pursuing the grant are largely wasted since they could have been used to advance the agency’s core mission. The larger the grant the more applicants there will be which will lead to greater amounts of resources being diverted from core activities to pursuing grants. Pursuing government grants is an example of rent-seeking and wastes resources.

Like other federal agencies, HUD needs to do a better job of evaluating its abundant programs. Or better yet, it needs to make more data available to the public so that individual researchers can conduct and duplicate studies that measure the net benefits of its programs. Currently much of the data that are available are usually only weakly related to the relevant outcomes and often are outdated or missing.

HUD also needs to specify what results it expects from the various grants it awards. Effective program evaluation starts with specifying measurable goals for each program. Without this first step there is no way to tell if a program is succeeding. Many of the goals of HUD programs are broad qualitative statements like “enhance economic competitiveness” which are difficult to measure. This allows grant recipients and HUD to declare every program a success since ex post they can use whatever measure best matches their desired result. Implementing measurable goals for all of its programs would help HUD identify ineffective programs and allow it to allocate more scarce resources to the programs that are working.

Local land-use restrictions harm everyone

In a recent NBER working paper, authors Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh analyze how the growth of cities determines the growth of nations. They use data on 220 MSAs from 1964 – 2009 to estimate the contribution of each city to US national GDP growth. They compare what they call the accounting estimate to the model-driven estimate. The accounting estimate is the simple way of attributing city nominal GDP growth to national GDP growth in that it doesn’t account for whether the increase in city GDP is due to higher nominal wages or increased output caused by an increase in local employment. The model-driven estimate that they compare it to distinguishes between these two factors.

Before I go any further it is important to explain the theory behind the author’s empirical findings. Suppose there is a productivity shock to City A such that workers in City A are more productive than they were previously. This productivity shock could be the result of a new method of production or a newly invented piece of equipment (capital) that helps workers make more stuff with a given amount of labor. This productivity shock will increase the local demand for labor which will increase the wage.

Now one of two things can happen and the diagram below depicts the two scenarios. The supply and demand lines are those for workers, with the wage on the Y-axis and the amount of workers on the X-axis. Since more workers lead to more output I also labeled labor as L = αY, where α is some fraction less than 1 to signify that each additional unit of labor doesn’t lead to a one unit increase in output, but rather some fraction of 1 unit (capital is needed too).

moretti, land use pic

City A can have a highly elastic supply of housing, meaning that it is easy to expand the number of housing units in that city and thus it is relatively easy for people to move there. This would mean that the supply of labor is like S-elastic in the diagram. Thus the number of workers that are able to migrate to City A after labor demand increases (D1 to D2) is large, local employment increases (Le > L*), and total output (GDP) increases. Wages only increase a little bit (We > W*). In this situation the productivity shock would have a relatively large effect on national GDP since it resulted in a large increase in local output as workers moved from relatively low-productivity cities to the relatively high-productivity City A.

Alternatively, the supply of housing in City A could be very inelastic; this would be like S-inelastic. If that is the case, then the productivity shock would still increase the wage in City A (Wi > W*), but it will be more difficult for new workers to move in since new housing cannot be built to shelter them. In this case wages increase but since total local employment stays fairly constant due to the restriction on available housing the increase in output is not as large (Li > L* but < Le). If City A output stays relatively constant and instead the productivity shock is expressed in higher nominal wages, then the resulting growth in City A nominal GDP will not have as large of an effect on national output growth.

As an example, Moretti and Hsieh calculate that the growth of New York City’s GDP was 12% of national GDP growth from 1964-2009. But when accounting for the change in wages, New York’s contribution to national output growth was only 5%: Most of New York’s GDP growth was manifested in higher nominal wages. This is not surprising as it is well known that New York has strict housing regulations that make it difficult to build new housing units (the recent extension of NYC rent-control laws won’t help). This makes it difficult for people to relocate from relatively low-productivity places to a high-productivity New York.

In three of the most intensely land-regulated cities: New York, San Francisco, and San Jose, the accounting contribution to national GDP growth was 19.3%. But these cities actual contribution to national output as estimated by the authors was only 6.1%. Contrast that with the Rust Belt cities (e.g. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc.) which contributed -28.5% according to the accounting method but +6.1% according to the author’s model.

The authors conclude that less onerous land-use restrictions in high-productivity cities New York, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, and the rest of Silicon Valley could increase the nation’s output growth rate by making it easier for workers to migrate from low to high-productivity areas. In an extreme migration scenario where 52% of American workers in 2009 lived in a different city than they actually did, the author’s calculate that GDP per worker would have been $8,775 higher in 2009, or $6,345 per person. In a more realistic scenario (only 20% of workers lived in a different city) it would have been $3,055 more per person: That is a substantial increase.

While I agree with the author’s conclusion that less land-use restrictions would result in a more productive allocation of labor and thus more stuff for all of us, the author’s policy prescriptions at the end of the paper leave much to be desired.  They propose that the federal government constrain the ability of municipalities to set land-use restrictions since these restrictions impose negative externalities on the rest of the country if the form of lowering national output growth. They also support the use of government funded high-speed rail to link  low-productivity labor markets to high-productivity labor markets e.g. the current high-speed rail construction project taking place in California could help workers get form low productivity areas like Stockton, Fresno, and Modesto, to high productivity areas in Silicon Valley.

Land-use restrictions are a problem in many areas, but not a problem that warrants arbitrary federal involvement. If federal involvement simply meant the Supreme Court ruling that land-use regulations (or at least most of them) are unconstitutional then I think that would be beneficial; a broad removal of land-use restrictions would go a long way towards reinstituting the institution of private property. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is what Moretti and Hsieh had in mind.

Arbitrary federal involvement in striking down local land-use regulations would further infringe on federalism and create opportunities for political cronyism. Whatever federal bureaucracy was put in charge of monitoring land-use restrictions would have little local knowledge of the situation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already monitors some local land use and faulty information along with an expensive appeals process creates problems for residents simply trying to use their own property. Creating a whole federal bureaucracy tasked with picking and choosing which land-use restrictions are acceptable and which aren’t would no doubt lead to more of these types of situations as well as increase the opportunities for regulatory activism. Also, federal land-use regulators may target certain areas that have governors or mayors who don’t agree with them on other issues.

As for more public transportation spending, I think the record speaks for itself – see here, here, and here.

Municipalities in fiscal distress: state-based laws and remedies

The Great Recession of 2008 “stress tested” many policies and institutions including the effectiveness of laws meant to handle municipal fiscal crises. In new Mercatus research professor Eric Scorsone of Michigan State University assess the range and type of legal remedies offered by states to help local governments in financial trouble.

“Municipal Fiscal Emergency Laws: Background and Guide to State-Based Approaches,” begins with some brief context. Most municipal fiscal laws trace their lineage through the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis, the Great Depression and the 19th century railroad bankruptcies. Writing in 1935, attorney Edward Dimock articulated three pieces to addressing municipal insolvency:  1) oversight of the municipality’s financial management 2) stop individual creditors from undermining the distressed entity and 3) put together a plan of adjustment for meeting the creditor’s needs.

These general parameters are at work in state laws today. The details vary. Some states are passive and others much more “hands-on” in dealing with local financial troubles. Scorsone documents these approach with a focus on the “triggers” states use to identify a crisis, the remedies permitted (e.g. can a municipality amend a collective bargaining agreement?), and the exit strategies offered. Maine has the most “Spartan” of fiscal triggers. A Maine municipality that fails to redistribute state taxes, or misses a bond payment triggers the state government’s attention. Michigan also has very strong municipal distress laws which create, “almost a form of quasi-bankruptcy” allowing the state emergency manager to break existing contracts. Texas and Tennessee, by contrast, are relatively hands-off.

How well these laws work is a live issue in many places, including Pennsylvania. In 1987 the state passed Act 47 to identify distressed municipalities. While Act 47 appears to have diagnosed dozens of faltering local governments, the law has proven ineffective in helping municipalities right course. Many cities have remained on the distressed list for 20 years. Recent legislation proposes to allow a municipality that can’t “exit Act 47” the option of disincorporating. Is there a middle ground? As the PA State Association of Town Supervisors put it, “If we can’t address the labor issues, if we can’t address the mandates, if we can’t address the tax exempt properties, we go nowhere.”

Municipalities end up in distress for a complex set of reasons: self-inflicted policy and governance failures, uncontrollable social and economic shifts, and external shocks. Unwinding the effects of decades of interlocking problems isn’t a neat and easy undertaking. The purpose of the paper isn’t to evaluate the effectiveness various approaches to helping municipalities out of distress, it is instead a much-needed guide to help navigate and compare the states’ legal frameworks in which municipal leaders make decisions.




Is American Federalism conducive to liberty?

In new Mercatus research, Dr. Richard E. Wagner, Harris professor of Economics at George Mason University tackles a fascinating question: Is the American form of federalism supportive of liberty?

His answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Under certain conditions, American federalism does support liberty, but that very same system can also be modified resulting in the expansion of political power relative to the liberty of citizens. The question of what results from the gradual constitutional transformation of the American federalist system is a salient one for not only students of government but also policymakers.

The important conditions that determine which form of federalism prevails (liberty-supporting or liberty-eroding) are rooted in competition among governments. Today we are experiencing a very different kind of federalism than the one instituted by the Founders. For the better part of a century, the US constitution has often been amended in a way to encourage collusion among the states thus undermining a key feature of a liberty-supporting federalism.

Restoring a liberty-supporting federalism first requires a deeper diagnosis of the American federalist system. Dr. Wagner develops that possibility through a very engaging synthesis of public choice theory, Austrian and new institutional economics.  Student of Dr. Wagner may be familiar with many of these concepts, developed in his public finance books including Deficits, Debt and Democracy (2012, Elgar). Rather than summarize the paper in today’s blog post, for now I encourage you to read the piece in full.

The “pension tapeworm” and Fiscal Federalism

In his annual report to shareholders, Warren Buffett cites the role that pension underfunding is playing in governments and markets:

“Citizens and public officials typically under-appreciated the gigantic financial tapeworm that was born when promises were made. During the next decade, you will read a lot of news –- bad news -– about public pension plans.”

He zones in on pension mathematics – “a mystery to most Americans” – as a possible reason for accelerating liabilities facing state and local governments including Puerto Rico, Detroit, New Jersey and Illinois. I might go further and state that pension mathematics remains a mystery to those with responsibility for, or interest in, these systems. It’s the number one reason why reforms have been halting and inadequate to meet the magnitude of the problem. But as has been mentioned on this blog before: the accounting will eventually catch up with the economics.

What that means is unrelenting pressure building in municipal budgets including major cities. MSN Money suggests the possibility of bankruptcy for Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City based on their growing health care and pension liabilities.

In the context of this recent news and open talk of big municipal bankruptcy, I found an interesting analysis by Paul E. Peterson and Daniel J. Nadler in “The Global Debt Crisis Haunting U.S. and European Federalism.”(Brookings Institution Press, 2014).

In their article, “Competitive Federalism Under Pressure,” they find a positive correlation between investors’ perception of default risk on state bonds and the unionization rate of the public sector workforce. While cautioning that there is much more at work influencing investors’ views, I think their findings are worth mentioning since one of the biggest obstacles to pension reform has been the reluctance of interested parties to confront the (actual) numbers.

More precisely, it leads to a situation like the one now being sorted out in federal bankruptcy court in Detroit. Pensioners have been told by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr that if they are willing to enter into a “timely settlement” with the city and state, they may see their pensions reduced by less than the 10 to 30 percent now suggested. Meanwhile bondholders are looking at a haircut of up to 80 percent.

If this outcome holds for Detroit, then Peterson and Nadler’s findings help to illuminate the importance of collective bargaining rules on the structure of American federalism by changing the “rules of the game” in state and local finances. The big question for other cities and creditors: How will Detroit’s treatment of pensions versus bonds affect investors’ perception of credit risk in the municipal debt market?

But there are even bigger implications. It is the scenario of multiple (and major) municipal bankruptcies that might lead to federalism-altering policy interventions, Peterson and Nadler conclude their analysis with this observation:

[public sector] Collective bargaining has, “magnified the risk of state sovereign defaults, complicated the resolution of deficit problems that provoke such crises, heightened the likelihood of a federal intervention if such crises materializes, and set the conditions for a transformation of the country’s federal system.”