Tag Archives: business cycle

What else can the government do for America’s poor?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reforms, which has generated some discussion about poverty in the U.S. I recently spoke to a group of high school students on this topic and about what reforms, if any, should be made to our means-tested welfare programs.

After reading several papers (e.g. here, here and here), the book Hillbilly Elegy, and reflecting on my own experiences I am not convinced the government is capable of doing much more.

History

President Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty” in his 1964 state of the union address. Over the last 50 years there has been some progress but there are still approximately 43 million Americans living in poverty as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Early on it looked as if poverty would be eradicated fairly quickly. In 1964, prior to the “War on Poverty”, the official poverty rate was 20%. It declined rapidly from 1965 to 1972, especially for the most impoverished groups as shown in the figure below (data from Table 1 in Haveman et al. , 2015). (Click to enlarge)

poverty-rate-1965-72

Since 1972 the poverty rate has remained fairly constant. It reached its lowest point in 1973—11.1%—but has since fluctuated between roughly 11% and 15%, largely in accordance with the business cycle. The number of people in poverty has increased, but that is unsurprising considering the relatively flat poverty rate coupled with a growing population.

census-poverty-rate-time-series-2015

Meanwhile, an alternative measure called the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) has declined, but it was still over 15% as of 2013, as shown below.

poverty-rate-time-series

The official poverty measure (OPM) only includes cash and cash benefits in its measure of a person’s resources, while the SPM includes tax credits and non-cash transfers (e.g. food stamps) as part of someone’s resources when determining their poverty status. The SPM also makes adjustments for local cost of living.

For example, the official poverty threshold for a single person under the age of 65 was $12,331 in 2015. But $12,331 can buy more in rural South Carolina than it can in Manhattan, primarily because of housing costs. The SPM takes these differences into account, although I am not sure it should for reasons I won’t get into here.

Regardless of the measure we look at, poverty is still higher than most people would probably expect considering the time and resources that have been expended trying to reduce it. This is especially true in high-poverty areas where poverty rates still exceed 33%.

A county-level map from the Census that uses the official poverty measure shows the distribution of poverty across the 48 contiguous states in 2014. White represents the least amount of poverty (3.2% to 11.4%) and dark pink the most (32.7% to 52.2%).

us-county-poverty-map

The most impoverished counties are in the south, Appalachia and rural west, though there are pockets of high-poverty counties in the plains states, central Michigan and northern Maine.

Why haven’t we made more progress on poverty? And is there more that government can do? I think these questions are intertwined. My answer to the first is it’s complicated and to the second I don’t think so.

Past efforts

The inability to reduce the official poverty rate below 10% doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of money. The figure below shows real per capita expenditures—sum of federal, state and local—on the top 84 (top line) and the top 10 (bottom line) means-tested welfare poverty programs since 1970. It is from Haveman et al. (2015).

real-expend-per-capita-on-poverty-programs

There has been substantial growth in both since the largest drop in poverty occurred in the late 1960s. If money was the primary issue one would expect better results over time.

So if the amount of money is not the issue what is? It could be that even though we are spending money, we aren’t spending it on the right things. The chart below shows real per capita spending on several different programs and is also from Haveman et al. (2015).

expend-per-cap-non-medicaid-pov-programs

Spending on direct cash-assistance programs—Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—has fallen over time, while spending on programs designed to encourage work—Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—and on non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing aid increased.

In the mid-1970s welfare programs began shifting from primarily cash aid (AFDC, TANF) to work-based aid (EITC). Today the EITC and food stamps are the core programs of the anti-poverty effort.

It’s impossible to know whether this shift has resulted in more or less poverty than what would have occurred without it. We cannot reconstruct the counterfactual without going back in time. But many people think that more direct cash aid, in the spirit of AFDC, is what’s needed.

The difference today is that instead of means-tested direct cash aid, many are calling for a universal basic income or UBI. A UBI would provide each citizen, from Bill Gates to the poorest single mother, with a monthly cash payment, no strings attached. Prominent supporters of a UBI include libertarian-leaning Charles Murray and people on the left such as Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker.

Universal Basic Income?

The details of each UBI plan vary, but the basic appeal is the same: It would reduce the welfare bureaucracy, simplify the process for receiving aid, increase the incentive to work at the margin since it doesn’t phase out, treat low-income people like adults capable of making their own decisions and mechanically decrease poverty by giving people extra cash.

A similar proposal is a negative income tax (NIT), first popularized by Milton Friedman. The current EITC is a negative income tax conditional on work, since it is refundable i.e. eligible people receive the difference between their EITC and the taxes they owe. The NIT has its own problems, discussed in the link above, but it still has its supporters.

In theory I like a UBI. Economists in general tend to favor cash benefits over in-kind programs like vouchers and food stamps due to their simplicity and larger effects on recipient satisfaction or utility. In reality, however, a UBI of even $5,000 is very expensive and there are public choice considerations that many UBI supporters ignore, or at least downplay, that are real problems.

The political process can quickly turn an affordable UBI into an unaffordable one. It seems reasonable to expect that politicians trying to win elections will make UBI increases part of their platform, with each trying to outdo the other. There is little that can be done, short of a constitutional amendment (and even those can be changed), to ensure that political forces don’t alter the amount, recipient criteria or add additional programs on top of the UBI.

I think the history of the income tax demonstrates that a relatively low, simple UBI would quickly morph into a monstrosity. In 1913 there were 7 income tax brackets that applied to all taxpayers, and a worker needed to make more than $20K (equivalent to $487,733 in 2016) before he reached the second bracket of 2% (!). By 1927 there were 23 brackets and the second one, at 3%, kicked in at $4K ($55,500 in 2016) instead of $20K. And of course we are all aware of the current tax code’s problems. To chart a different course for the UBI is, in my opinion, a work of fantasy.

Final thoughts

Because of politics, I think an increase in the EITC (and reducing its error rate), for both working parents and single adults, coupled with criminal justice reform that reduces the number of non-violent felons—who have a hard time finding employment upon release—are preferable to a UBI.

I also support the abolition of the minimum wage, which harms the job prospects of low-skilled workers. If we are going to tie anti-poverty programs to work in order to encourage movement towards self-sufficiency, then we should make it as easy as possible to obtain paid employment. Eliminating the minimum wage and subsidizing income through the EITC is a fairer, more efficient way to reduce poverty.

Additionally, if a minimum standard of living is something that is supported by society than all of society should share the burden via tax-funded welfare programs. It is not philanthropic to force business owners to help the poor on behalf of the rest of us.

More economic growth would also help. Capitalism is responsible for lifting billions of people out of dire poverty in developing countries and the poverty rate in the U.S. falls during economic expansions (see previous poverty rate figures). Unfortunately, growth has been slow over the last 8 years and neither presidential candidate’s policies inspire much hope.

In fact, a good way for the government to help the poor is to reduce regulation and lower the corporate tax rate, which would help economic growth and increase wages.

Despite the relatively high official poverty rate in the U.S., poor people here live better than just about anywhere else in the world. Extreme poverty—think Haiti—doesn’t exist in the U.S. On a consumption rather than income basis, there’s evidence that the absolute poverty rate has fallen to about 4%.

Given the way government functions I don’t think there is much left for it to do. Its lack of local knowledge and resulting blunt, one size fits all solutions, coupled with its general inefficiency, makes it incapable of helping the unique cases that fall through the current social safety net.

Any additional progress will need to come from the bottom up and I will discuss this more in a future post.

What would a business-cycle balanced budget rule look like in Illinois?

A few years ago, I testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. I’d been invited to talk about the design of a federal balanced budget amendment and much of my testimony drew on the lessons offered from state experience. Since 49 of the 50 states have such requirements, and since these requirements vary from state to state, I noted that federal lawmakers could learn from the state laboratory.

The best requirement, I argued, would have the following characteristics:

  1. Require balance over some period longer than a year. This effectively disarms the strongest argument against a balanced budget amendment: namely, that it would force belt-tightening in the middle of a recession. In contrast, if budgets need to balance over a longer time period, then Congress is free to run deficits in particular years as long as they are countered by surpluses in others.
  2. Allow Congress some time to come into compliance. You don’t have to be a Keynesian to worry that a 45 percent reduction in the deficit overnight might be a shock to the system.
  3. Minimize the gamesmanship associated with revenue estimation: Across the country, states with balanced budget requirements have to estimate revenue throughout the year (I’m a member of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and our responsibility is to pass judgment on the validity of these estimates). But this invites all sorts of questions: what model to use for the economy, should revenue be scored dynamically or statically, etc. One way to sidestep all of these questions is to make the requirement retrospective: require that spending this year not exceed revenue from years past.

Michigan Republican Justin Amash has proposed an amendment along these lines. It would be phased-in over 9 years and from there on out would stipulate that outlays “not exceed the average annual revenue collected in the three prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.” Because it requires balance over three years rather than one, Amash calls it the “business cycle balanced budget amendment.”

Writing in Time, GMU’s Alex Tabarrok points to Sweden’s positive experience with a similar rule. And economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane also endorse such a rule in their book, Balance.

Now, some Illinois state lawmakers have put together a proposal for a state rule that appears to be largely based on this model. It requires:

Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed the average annual revenue collected for the 3 prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.

(Unlike the Amash plan, however, the Illinois plan is not phased in over a number of years. Rather, it takes effect immediately upon passage of the bill.)

To see how it might work in a state, I decided to take the Amash Amendment for a test drive, using Illinois data. The solid blue line in the figure below charts Illinois’s actual general revenue from 1990 to 2012 in billions of current dollars. The dashed blue line phases in an Amash-type “business cycle” balanced budget rule. Once fully phased-in, it would limit spending to the average revenue of the three previous years, with an adjustment for inflation and population growth.

BCBBA

Notice three things:

  1. From 1990 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2007, the rule would have kept Illinois spending in line with Illinois revenue, and would have even allowed the state to run surpluses.
  2. In lean years (like 2008) when revenue levels off, the limit actually continues to rise. That’s because it is based on a longer time trend. This means that it wouldn’t require the sort of draconian budget cuts that balanced budget critics often fear. The accumulated surpluses from previous years could also be used to soften the blow.
  3. Lastly, note the (9 percent) revenue uptick from 2011 to 2012. The amendment would prudently make legislators wait a few years before they can go out and spend that money.

States Look to Rainy Day Funds to Avoid Future Crises

For the past nine quarters, state revenue collections have been increasing and are now approaching 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation. Many state policymakers are no longer facing the near-ubiquitous budget gaps of fiscal year 2012, but at the moment those memories seem to remain fresh in their minds.

Many states are looking to rainy day funds as a tool to avoid the revenue shortfalls they have experienced since the recession. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Walker recently made headlines by building up the states’ fund to $125.4 million. In Texas, the state’s significant Rainy Day Fund has reached over $8 billion, behind only Alaska’s fund that holds over $18 billion.

A June report from the Tax Foundation shows Texas and Alaska are the only states with funds that are significant enough to protect states from budget stress in future business cycle downturns. As the Tax Foundation analysis explains, state rainy day funds can be a useful to smooth spending over the business cycle. Research that Matt Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski cite demonstrates that rainy day funds governed by strict rules about when they may be tapped do achieve modest success in smoothing revenue volatility. Because most states have balanced budget requirements, when tax revenues fall during business cycle downturns, states must respond by raising taxes or cutting spending, both pro-cyclical options. If states are required to contribute to rainy day funds when they have revenue surpluses and then are able to draw on these savings during downturns in order to avoid tax increases or spending cuts, this pro-cyclical trend can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation points out some of the benefits of large rainy day funds:

Maintaining large “rainy day” funds  benefits Texas and Alaska in three ways:

1) These states do not rely  on large pots of one-time funding to pay for ongoing expenses, but rather balance their books by bringing spending in line with revenues;

2) These states  have reserves on hand to deal with emergencies; and

3) Having a large “rainy day” fund improves the states’ bond rating which means lower interest rates for borrowing.

However, even as more states begin making significant contributions to their rainy day funds, they have not fulfilled their pension obligations. According to states’ own estimates of their pension liabilities, states’ unfunded pension liabilities total about $1 billion. However using private sector accounting methods, states are actually on the hook for over $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Because states do not use the risk-free discount rate to value these liabilities, the surpluses they think they have to contribute to rainy day funds are illusions.

Even if states were already contributing appropriately to their pension funds and systematically contributed to rainy day funds during revenue upswings, it’s not clear that rainy day funds are a path toward fiscal discipline.  Because of the perpetual tendency for government to grow, it’s unlikely that state policymakers will take any steps to reduce the growth of government during times of economic growth. If states successfully save tax revenues in rainy day funds to avoid having to make spending cuts during recessions, states will not have to decrease spending at any point during the business cycle. States’ balanced budget requirements can provide a mechanism that helps states cut spending in some areas when revenues drop off, but rainy day funds obviate this requirement. Successful use of rainy day funds could contribute to the trend of states’ spending growing fast than GDP.

Supporters of substantial rainy day funds should acknowledge that these cushions — which on the one hand may provide significant benefits to taxpayers — come at the expense of cyclical opportunities to cut the size of state governments to bring them in line with tax revenues. Without the necessity of cutting spending at some point, state budgets might grow more rapidly that they already are, hindering economic growth in the long run. Whether or not rainy day funds increase the growth rate is an empirical question that advocates should research before recommending this strategy, and this possible drawback should be weighed against their potential to reduce revenue volatility.

A Better Balanced Budget Amendment

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the state-level evidence on strict balanced budget requirements:

I believe the evidence supports this claim. David Primo (2003) and Mark Crain (2003) find that states with a strict balanced budget requirement tend to spend less than other states. Shanna Rose (2006) finds that states with strict balanced budget requirements tend not to experience a political business cycle in which government spending rises just prior to an election and falls shortly thereafter. Bohn and Inman (1996) find that states with strict balanced budget requirements tend to have larger General Fund surpluses and larger rainy day funds.

Since then, the recently-inked debt deal has obliged Congress to take up and vote on a balanced budget amendment. I think the most-compelling argument against such an amendment is the concern that it would exacerbate the ups and downs of the business cycle by forcing spending cuts when the economy is contracting and permitting increases when the economy is expanding.

This is a concern, but there are ways around it.

One answer is a rainy day fund. Forty-seven states have such funds; states contribute to them during good years and then draw on them when the budget is strained due to a downturn or some other event like a natural disaster. Gary Wagner and Erick Elder find that states whose rainy day finds have strict rules governing the amounts they must deposit and the reasons for which they may withdraw from them tend to experience less spending volatility.

Alex Taborrok makes the case for essentially the same scheme at the federal level.  He calls it an “unbalanced Budget Amendment.”

Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane weigh in with a similar proposal, arguing that “the annual constraint on expenditure should be defined by the median federal revenues of the last five years, not the current year.”  They have a number of other proposals worth considering as well:

  • The “balance” should count accrued liabilities in entitlements.
  • It should use “escalating supermajorities for exemptions,” meaning that “a 3/5 vote in both houses is required the first year of exemption, 4/6 the second year, 5/7 next, and so on.”
  • It should provide a glide path to a lower debt-to-GDP ratio.

David Primo highlights a current proposal in Congress that incorporates many of these features.

Balanced Budget Rules and Unintended Consequences

In my view this is one reason of many why a balanced budget amendment is not a workable path toward fiscal conservatism.

That is Tyler Cowen’s take on my paper with Noel Johnson and Steven Yamarik. I can certainly see why he might come to this conclusion.  We find that when Democratically-controlled states face a binding constraint on their ability to carry a deficit over from one year to the next, they may regulate more instead. A friend of mine calls this the “muffin-top” problem: belt-tightening can sometimes lead to unsightly bulging…elsewhere.  In spite of the muffin-top problem, I am actually still an advocate of a balanced budget amendment at the federal level.

Though I often marvel at the fiscal irresponsibility of state governments, I can’t help but feel that if the states and the federal government were in some sort of fiscal beauty contest, the states would easily come in 1st through 50th while the federal government would come in 51st.  Consider:

  • Collectively, state and local governments are in debt to the tune of about 2.6 trillion dollars, while the federal government has racked up nearly 4 times that amount.
  • The states have accumulated $9.9 trillion in unfunded obligations that will come due over the next several decades.  The Feds, meanwhile have accumulated 5 to 10 times this amount (depending on whether you agree with Medicare’s chief actuary that the current political path is highly unlikely).
  • Most states manage to balance their operating expenses (some gimmickry aside) on an annual or biannual basis. In contrast,
    for the last 80 years, the federal government’s norm has been to run an annual operating deficit (with deficits about 85 percent of the time).
  • When states do borrow, it is typically for long-term capital projects (again, some gimmickry aside).  So future generations are on the hook for bridges and buildings that they, too, will use. In contrast, the Feds don’t even pretend to borrow for future projects; much of what my daughter’s generation will pay for is my generation’s consumption.
  • When states encounter budgetary problems, they tend to deal with them by cutting spending rather than raising taxes.

All of this is somewhat surprising given the fact that, constitutionally, the states were given a blank check whereas the feds were not. As Madison put it in Federalist 45:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.

So why, given so much more (constitutional) power than the feds, do the states seem to manage their affairs more-responsibly? Tiebout competition and the lack of a central bank likely play a role. But I believe the fact that every state but Vermont has to balance its books each year must account for a large share of this relative fiscal probity.  As James Buchanan and Richard Wagner argued over 30 years ago, the ability to buy items for today’s generation while putting the tab on tomorrow’s generation creates a systematic bias in favor of irresponsible spending. In contrast, they argue:

The restoration of the balanced-budget rule will serve only to allow for a somewhat more conscious and careful weighting of benefits and costs. The rule will have the effect of bringing the real costs of public outlays to the awareness of decision makers; it will tend to dispel the illusory “something for nothing” aspects of fiscal choice.

I believe the evidence supports this claim.  David Primo (2003) and Mark Crain (2003) find that states with a strict balanced budget requirement tend to spend less than other states.  Shanna Rose (2006) finds that states with strict balanced budget requirements tend not to experience a political business cycle in which government spending rises just prior to an election and falls shortly thereafter. Bohn and Inman (1996) find that states with strict balanced budget requirements tend to have larger General Fund surpluses and larger rainy day funds.

In our paper we find that stricter balanced budget rules tend to constrain partisan fiscal outcomes.  The fact that they may lead to bulges in the regulatory state is, indeed, unfortunate.  But in my view, that suggests that we should also examine biases in the political economy of regulation and consider institutional reform to address those as well.  Perhaps there is need for a more-conscious weighing of the benefits and costs of regulation?  If belt-tightening leads to muffin-tops, maybe we need more than a balanced budget amendment?  Perhaps spanxs?

State Subsidy Reliance

Like many state services across the country, the Phoenix area’s new light rail system is facing cuts because of budget shortfalls. Like many transit systems, the light rail is funded by a combination of fares and subsidies that come from the local, state, and federal governments.

This payment arrangement makes transit systems vulnerable to volatility in government budgets as well as business cycle fluctuations. An Arizona Republic article explains:

The money shift reflects how much of Maricopa County’s voter-adopted plan to expand transit service in the next 15 years has fallen victim to the economy. That includes some extensions of light-rail lines.

“We’ve pretty much gutted all of our future capital projects that aren’t federally funded in order to keep service intact,” said Paul Hodgins, a planner at the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which manages bus service in much of the Valley.

When new Metro Chief Executive Officer Steve Banta begins his first day on the job in two weeks, one of his first actions will be to review cuts with his new board.

Metro covers about a quarter of its costs from fares, and depends on sales-tax revenue from Phoenix and Tempe and general-fund money from Mesa. With tax revenue down, cuts look inevitable.

In New Jersey, a state that, like Arizona, has a very large budget deficit, legislators are facing similar challenges.  Governor Chris Christie is leading an effort to privatize state services to save taxpayer money and increase efficiency.

While privatization can be a solution to curbing government costs and improving service to constituents, the process must be undertaken transparently.  The New Jersey Star Ledger warns that previous projects were fraught with corruption:

A privatization effort under former governor Christie Whitman that turned auto inspections over to Parsons Corp. in the 1990s was called a “mammoth boondoggle” by investigators. Parsons was criticized for hiring an array of politically connected subcontractors.

States Fail to Save Jobs

A Long Island newspaper reports that the New York is cutting 3,722 workers from the state payroll in order to reduce its budget shortfall. These job cuts are in spite of federal stimulus funds that were intended, in part, to prevent job loss among states’ employees.

A Wall Street Journal article reminds us that this winter the administration asserted that the stimulus package would create or save 3.5 million jobs. While the situation in one state certainly does not prove that the stimulus has been ineffective, it does bring to light the difficulty of measuring whether jobs have been “created or saved.”

The enormous spread between the states and the White House reflects how difficult it is to measure job creation and attribute it to a specific cause. The result, a hodge-podge of numbers, could accelerate criticism that the stimulus isn’t doing enough to reduce unemployment.

Empirical economic claims can sound convincing in politicians’ speeches, but current federal spending provides an opportunity to evaluate the accuracy of such a statement as the stimulus policy unfolds. Obviously the unemployment situation has worsened since the stimulus package passed. But in spite of the rising ranks of the unemployed, can we say that the bill has saved or will save 3.5 million jobs? The answer is: we don’t know. Policy makers can generally make such bold assertions about the economy because there is simply no way to test their claims.

While we cannot calculate the specific effects of the stimulus, the current recession has led to the unveiling of many unsustainable government spending habits. In addition to New York state workers losing their jobs, painful spending cuts are on the table in California, Arizona, New Jersey, and Nevada. We cannot know conclusively the impact of the stimulus on state budgets, but we can observe a pattern of state spending that tends to grow until rising deficits force legislators to make difficult decisions.

Government spending cannot support long run economic growth because it relies upon the prosperity of the tax base, a base that is eroded by continually rising tax rates as companies leave for places with lower taxes and entrepreneurship declines. If states chose to provide a reliable level of public services irrespective of the business cycle, they would be able to maintain this level, facing relatively minor challenges as state revenue fluctuates with the business cycle.

In an effort to achieve steady and reliable state budgeting processes, policy makers in Maine and Washington are considering limits to their own spending. While the transition to fiscal prudence will be difficult if these states decide to undertake it, a consistent institutional environment is necessary to achieve low unemployment rates and economic growth in the long run.

Resurrecting the New Deal in Perry County, Tennessee

While many cities and municipalities are still seeking approval on projects that propose to use federal stimulus money, a Tennessee county has used a different model to attempt to employ as many of its citizens as quickly as possible. The New York Times details the county’s efforts to put stimulus money to work in an area where unemployment levels recently exceeded 25 percent.

Rather than waiting for big projects to be planned and awarded to construction companies, or for tax cuts to trickle through the economy, state officials hit upon a New Deal model of trying to put people directly to work as quickly as possible.

They are using welfare money from the stimulus package to subsidize 300 new jobs across Perry County, with employers ranging from the state Transportation Department to the milkshake place near the high school.

Given the constraints of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Perry County may be maximizing the potential of these federal dollars to lower current unemployment rates.  The Tennessean reports that the immediate effects of this program have been successful:

The centerpiece of an innovative job-creation program has put 300 residents to work temporarily, including 200… who are employed in the private sector, working at the local country club, insurance offices, hardware stores, trucking firms and the Subway sandwich shop.

What sets this program apart from other stimulus-related ones around the nation is that workers’ wages and benefits are paid directly by federal funds. It is the only stimulus initiative in the country like this, at least on this scale, according to federal Health and Human Services officials.

Aside from the local benefits of rapidly spending its ARRA allotment, the Perry County model is likely a better attempt at effective discretionary fiscal policy than has been witnessed in places that have yet to begin spending their stimulus money. A standard critique of discretionary fiscal policy is that is has long lags before taking effect, meaning that changes in taxing or spending in response to changes in the business cycle are likely to exacerbate, rather than smooth peaks and troughs in the business cycle. If it is possible to create spending programs that minimize these lags, Perry County has likely done just that.

As with other programs using stimulus funding, however, seeing success in Perry County’s unemployment reduction relies on a short-term view of economic heath.  The jobs funded by ARRA will likely disappear once these funds run out and public support for job creation wanes.  A local television news station explains:

The jobs are only temporary and will end a year from September. County Mayor John Carroll says the jobs are just a bandage: stopping the bleeding, but not a permanent fix.

Federal spending in places like Perry County has the potential to help people weather the current recession, but it may do more long run harm than good. Many manufacturing jobs that were once located in America are now outsourced to places where they can be executed more cost-effectively, but this trend does not require federal support to artificially create jobs for low-skilled domestic workers.

Instead, for long-term economic health, former manufacturing centers need to allow the private investment to direct their labor pools toward their new comparative advantages.

Experiments in Democracy

A Wall Street Journal editorial discusses the severity of the budget crises in three states: California, New Jersey, and New York.  While all states are suffering decreased revenues this fiscal year, the problems in these states have been especially severe, resulting in possible downgrades for California’s bonds which are already the lowest-rated in the country.

The Journal states:

A decade ago all three states were among America’s most prosperous. California was the unrivaled technology center of the globe. New York was its financial capital. New Jersey is the third wealthiest state in the nation after Connecticut and Massachusetts. All three are now suffering from devastating budget deficits as the bills for years of tax-and-spend governance come due.

During booms in the business cycle, high tax rates accompanied by an increased level of government services are palatable to taxpayers, but as these three cases exhibit, high-tax policies can quickly become unsustainable as incomes fall.

Eileen’s last post explains that state and municipal policy makers including Rudolph Giuliani are currently discussing reforms toward greater fiscal responsibility in order to promote prosperity in their localities, but these reforms are going to be difficult to enact for states that are already deeply indebted.

A great asset of the American federal system is that policy variation across the states allows citizens and law makers to observe how various fiscal policies function in the real world.  As described by the authors of the newly published 2009 edition of Rich States, Poor States, constituents do in fact “vote with their feet” by moving to states with policies that fit their desires.  This year’s index demonstrates that states in the South and West are generally gaining domestic population from the Northeast where taxes and government involvement in the economy are generally higher.

Unfortunately, the same experimentation at the federal level carries much greater costs.  Until now, federal aid has allowed for irresponsible fiscal policies to continue at the state level, but this policy may be coming to an end.  If the federal debt and deficit approach the unsustainable levels that states such as California, New Jersey, and New York have reached, no entity will be able to bail it out.  Additionally, economic policies at the federal level do not provide the same sort of natural experiment within the country and carry a higher risk of severe negative consequences.

The article continues:

At least Americans have the ability to flee these ill-governed states for places that still welcome wealth creators. The debate in Washington now is whether to spread this antigrowth model across the entire country.

While government systems can never incorporate the feedback mechanisms of the market, the federalist system allows for a sort of competition between states and localities in which competition allows successful programs to thrive and spread. However, this system only works when unsuccessful local policies are not subsidized by the federal government and when authority is sufficiently devolved to allow states to differentiate their policies from one another’s.

Overplanning in Dubai

In an  LA Times article, architecture critic Christopher Hawkin writes about his trip to study Dubai:

Like many first-time visitors, I expected to find in Dubai a messy, vital hybrid of architectural and urban strategies, reflecting the city’s history as a regional crossroads and trading center. I could hardly have been more wrong. Dubai is not some Middle Eastern Venice, a polyglot city where the combination of construction workers from Pakistan, bankers from London and Hong Kong and tourists from around the world creates a mash-up of contemporary urbanism.

[. . .]

One major reason that the city has been divided up this way is that the emirate’s ruling family, led by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, controls all the major real estate companies operating here. In Dubai, the urban planners and the developers are essentially one and the same. Market ambition and civic ambition are similarly intertwined: Sheik Mohammed has often been called Dubai’s chief executive. Instead of building a monumental city hall or war memorial, Dubai builds shopping centers and office towers at a monumental scale.

In the heart of most cities, the biggest piece of land that a single developer is typically able to control is one square block. (In a dense, layered city, of course, the average parcel is far smaller.) In Dubai, whole districts of the city, many covering dozens of square blocks and hundreds of acres, have been given over to single developments. Seeing architectural diversity within any project as a threat to the bottom line, their creators usually hire a single firm to design them around a recognizable theme: the golf community, the office park, the vaguely souk-like waterfront combination of retail outlets and condominiums.

Currently, the relationship between builders and policy makers in Dubai has led to a strange pattern of development and has resulted a compartmentalized city rather than a conglomeration of neighborhoods. If the city does not recover its position as a tourist destination, it will be difficult for it to diversify its economy because current land use is not suitable for typical residential or business uses.

The unnatural development that a lack of competition has created in Dubai shares similarities with ideas promoted by garden city planners of the early 20th century. Garden city planners believed an organized, planned utopia would be preferable to the apparent chaos of cities that grow organically. Although the idea of a highly stylized and planned city may theoretically seem  this sort of development does not lead to livable cities.

If Dubai seeks to be merely a tourist attraction rather than a vibrant city, this glitzy but impractical development model may succeed provided that global economic prosperity returns quickly.  However, such an undiversified economy means that the city would remain in a position to be particularly hard hit by downturns in the business cycle, as Las Vegas is in the United States.

In order to develop cities that function as more than amusement parks, competition between developers at the street level is necessary to facilitate the diverse needs of residents, rather than exclusively the desires of wealthy tourists.  As a British businessman in Dubai explained in The Sunday Times:

Dubai has brilliantly exploited the boom years to build itself on to the map and into people’s minds. But Plan A is over now. The model only works in the good times. We need Plan B and we need it fast.

More on Dubai’s economy from the Economist, and on the city’s future prospects from Tyler Cowen (who has written on Dubai over 100 times).