Tag Archives: economic development

The unseen costs of Amazon’s HQ2 Site Selection

Earlier this year Amazon narrowed down the list of potential cities to site its second headquarters. Applicants are now waiting out the selection process. It’s unclear when Amazon will make its choice, but that hasn’t stopped many from speculating who the likely contenders are. Varying sources report Atlanta, Boston, and Washington D.C. at the top of the list. The cities that didn’t make the cut are no doubt envious of the finalists, having just missed out on the potential for a $5 billion facility and 50,000 jobs. The second HQ is supposed to be as significant for economic growth as the company’s first site, which according to Amazon’s calculations contributed an additional $38 billion to Seattle’s economy between 2010 and 2016. There is clearly a lot to be gained by the winner.  But there are also many costs. Whichever city ends up winning the bid will be changed forever. What’s left out of the discussion is how the bidding process and corporate incentives affect the country.

Although the details of the proposals are not made public, each finalist is likely offering some combination of tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives in return for the company’s choice to locate in their city. The very bidding process necessitates a lot of time and effort by many parties. It will certainly seem “worth it” to the winning party, but the losers aren’t getting back the time and effort they spent.

This practice of offering incentives for businesses has been employed by states and localities for decades, with increased usage over time. Targeted economic development incentives can take the form of tax exemptions, abatements, regulatory relief, and taxpayer assistance. They are but one explicit cost paid by states and cities looking to secure business, and there is a growing literature that suggests these policies are more costly than meets the eye.

First, there’s the issue of economic freedom. Recent Mercatus research suggests that there may be a tradeoff to offering economic development incentives like the ones that Amazon is receiving. Economists John Dove and Daniel Sutter find that states that spend more on targeted development incentives as a percentage of gross state product also have less overall economic freedom. The theoretical reasoning behind this is not very clear, but Dove and Sutter propose that it could be because state governments that use more subsidies or tax breaks to attract businesses will also spend more or raise taxes for everyone else in their state, resulting in less equitable treatment of their citizens and reducing overall economic freedom.

The authors define an area as having more economic freedom if it has lower levels of government spending, taxation, and labor market restrictions. They use the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America Index (EFNA) to measure this. Of the three areas within the EFNA index, labor market freedom is the most affected by targeted economic development incentives. This means that labor market regulation such as the minimum wage, government employment, and union density are all significantly related to the use of targeted incentives.

Economic freedom can be ambiguous, however, and it’s sometimes hard to really grasp its impact on our lives. It sounds nice in theory, but because of its vagueness, it may not seem as appealing as a tangible economic development incentive package and the corresponding business attached to it. Economic freedom is associated with a series of other, more tangible benefits, including higher levels of income and faster economic growth. There’s also evidence that greater economic freedom is associated with urban development.

Not only is the practice of offering targeted incentives associated with lower economic freedom, but it is also indicative of other issues. Economists Peter Calcagno and Frank Hefner have found that states with budget issues, high tax and regulatory burdens, and poorly trained labor forces are also more likely to offer targeted incentives as a way to offset costly economic conditions. Or, in other words, targeted development incentives can be – and often are – used to compensate for a less than ideal business climate. Rather than reform preexisting fiscal or regulatory issues within a state, the status quo and the use of targeted incentives is the more politically feasible option.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Amazon’s bidding process is the effect it has on our culture. Ideally, economic development policy should be determined by healthy economic competition between states. In practice, it has evolved into more of an unhealthy interaction between private interests and political favor. Economists Joshua Jansa and Virginia Gray refer to this as cultural capture. They find increases in business political contributions to be positively correlated with state subsidy spending. Additionally, they express concern over the types of firms that these subsidies attract. There is a selection bias for targeted incentives to systematically favor “flighty firms” or firms that will simply relocate if better subsidies are offered by another state, or potentially threaten to leave in an effort to extract more subsidies.

None of these concerns even address the question of whether targeted incentives actually achieve their intended goals.  The evidence does not look good. In a review of the literature by my colleague Matthew Mitchell, and me, we found that of the studies that evaluate the effect of targeted incentives on the broader economy, only one study found a positive effect, whereas four studies found unanimously negative effects. Thirteen studies (half of the sample) found no statistically significant effect, and the remaining papers found mixed results in which some companies or industries won, but at the expense of others.

In addition to these unseen costs on the economy, some critics are beginning to question whether being chosen by Amazon is even worth it. Amazon’s first headquarters has been considered a catalyst for the city’s tech industry, but local government and business leaders have raised concerns about other possibly related issues such as gentrification, rising housing prices, and persistent construction and traffic congestion. There is less research on this, but it is worth considering.

It is up to each city’s policymakers to decide whether these trade-offs are worth it. I would argue, however, that much of the evidence points to targeted incentives – like the ones that cities are using to attract Amazon’s business – as having more costs than benefits. Targeted economic development incentives may seem to offer a lot of tangible benefits, but their unseen costs should not be overlooked. From the perspective of how they benefit each state’s economy as a whole, targeted incentives are detrimental to economic freedom as well as our culture surrounding corporate handouts. Last but not least, they may often be an attempt to cover up other issues that are unattractive to businesses.

Mutant Capitalism rears its ugly head in Arlington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High-speed rail: is this year different?

Many U.S. cities are racing to develop high speed rail systems that shorten commute times and develop the economy for residents. These trains are able to reach speeds over 124 mph, sometimes even as high as 374 mph as in the case of Japan’s record-breaking trains. Despite this potential, American cities haven’t quite had the success of other countries. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded almost a billion dollars of stimulus money to Wisconsin to build a high-speed rail line connection between Milwaukee and Madison, and possibly to the Twin Cities, but that project was derailed. Now, the Trump administration has plans to support a high-speed rail project in Texas. Given so many failed attempts in the U.S., it’s fair to ask if this time is different. And if it is, will high-speed rail bring the benefits that proponents claim it to have?

The argument for building high-speed rail lines usually entails promises of faster trips, better connections between major cities, and economic growth as a result. It almost seems like a no-brainer – why would any city not want to pursue something like this? The answer, like with most public policy questions, depends on the costs, and whether the benefits actually realize.

In a forthcoming paper for the Mercatus Center, transportation scholar Kenneth Button explores these questions by studying the high-speed rail experiences of Spain, Japan, and China; the countries with the three largest systems (measured by network length). Although there are benefits to these rail systems, Button cautions against focusing too narrowly on them as models, primarily because what works in one area can’t necessarily be easily replicated in another.

Most major systems in other countries have been the result of large public investment and built with each area’s unique geography and political environment kept in mind. Taking their approaches and trying to apply them to American cities not only ignores how these factors can differ, but also how much costs can differ. For example, the average infrastructure unit price of high-speed rail in Europe is between $17 and $24 million per mile and the estimated cost for proposals in California is conservatively estimated at $35 million per mile.

The cost side of the equation is often overlooked, and more attention is given to the benefit side. Button explains that the main potential benefit – generating economic growth – doesn’t always live up to expectations. The realized growth effects are usually minimal, and sometimes even negative. Despite this, proponents of high-speed rail oversell them. The process of thinking through high-speed rail as a sound public investment is often short-lived.

The goal is to generate new economic activity, not merely replace or divert it from elsewhere. In Japan, for example, only six percent of the traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen line was newly generated, while 55 percent came from other rail lines, 23 percent from air, and 16 percent from inter-city bus. In China, after the Nanguang and Guiguang lines began operating in 2014, a World Bank survey found that many of the passengers would have made the journey along these commutes through some other form of transportation if the high-speed rail option wasn’t there. The passengers who chose this new transport method surely benefited from shorter travel times, but this should not be confused with net growth across the economy.

Even if diverted away from other transport modes, the amount of high-speed rail traffic Japan and China have generated is commendable. Spain’s system, however, has not been as successful. Its network has only generated about 5 percent of Japan’s passenger volume. A line between Perpignan, France and Figueres, Spain that began services in 2009 severely fell short of projected traffic. Originally, it was expected to run 19,000 trains per year, but has only reached 800 trains by 2015.

There is also evidence that high speed rail systems poorly re-distribute activity geographically. This is especially concerning given the fact that projects are often sold on a promise of promoting regional equity and reducing congestion in over-heating areas. You can plan a track between well-developed and less-developed regions, but this does not guarantee that growth for both will follow. The Shinkansen system delivers much of Japan’s workforce to Tokyo, for example, but does not spread much employment away from the capital. In fact, faster growth happened where it was already expected, even before the high-speed rail was planned or built. Additionally, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansan line in particular has strengthened the relative economic position of Tokyo and Osaka while weakening those of cities not served.

Passenger volume and line access are not – and should not be – the only metrics of success. Academics have exhibited a fair amount of skepticism regarding high-speed rail’s ability to meet other objectives. When it comes to investment value, many cases have resulted in much lower returns than expected. A recent, extreme example of this is California’s bullet train that is 50 percent over its planned budget; not to mention being seven years behind in its building schedule.

The project in California has been deemed a lost cause by many, but other projects have gained more momentum in the past year. North American High Speed Rail Group has proposed a rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and if it gets approval from city officials, it plans to finance entirely with private money. The main drawback of the project is that it would require the use of eminent domain to take the property of existing businesses that are in the way of the planned line path. Private companies trying to use eminent domain to get past a roadblock like this often do so claiming that it is for the “public benefit.” Given that many residents have resisted the North American High Speed Rail Group’s plans, trying to force the use of eminent domain would likely only destroy value; reallocating property from a higher-value to a lower-value use.

Past Mercatus research has found that using eminent domain powers for redevelopment purposes – i.e. by taking from one private company and giving to another – can cause the tax base to shrink as a result of decreases in private investment. Or in other words, when entrepreneurs see that the projects that they invest in could easily be taken if another business owner makes the case to city officials, it would in turn discourage future investors from moving into the same area. This ironically discourages development and the government’s revenues suffer as a result.

Florida’s Brightline might have found a way around this. Instead of trying to take the property of other businesses and homes in its way, the company has raised money to re-purpose existing tracks already between Miami and West Palm Beach. If implemented successfully, this will be the first privately run and operated rail service launched in the U.S. in over 100 years. And it doesn’t require using eminent domain or the use of taxpayer dollars to jump-start that, like any investment, has risk of being a failure; factors that reduce the cost side of the equation from the public’s perspective.

Which brings us back to the Houston-to-Dallas line that Trump appears to be getting behind. How does that plan stack up to these other projects? For one, it would require eminent domain to take from rural landowners in order to build a line that would primarily benefit city residents. Federal intervention would require picking a winner and loser at the offset. Additionally, there is no guarantee that building of the line would bring about the economic development that many proponents promise. Button’s new paper suggests that it’s fair to be skeptical.

I’m not making the argument that high-speed rail in America should be abandoned altogether. Progress in Florida demonstrates that maybe in the right conditions and with the right timing, it could be cost-effective. The authors of a 2013 study echo this by writing:

“In the end, HSR’s effect on economic and urban development can be characterized as analogous to a fertilizer’s effect on crop growth: it is one ingredient that could stimulate economic growth, but other ingredients must be present.”

For cities that can’t seem to mix up the right ingredients, they can look to other options for reaching the same goals. In fact, a review of the economic literature finds that investing in road infrastructure is a much better investment than other transportation methods like airports, railways, or ports. Or like I’ve discussed previously, being more welcoming to new technologies like driver-less cars has the potential to both reduce congestion and generate significant economic gains.

Does Tax Increment Financing (TIF) generate economic development?

Tax increment financing, or TIF, is a method of financing economic development projects first used in California in 1952. Since then, 48 other states have enacted TIF legislation with Arizona being the lone holdout. It was originally conceived as a method for combating urban blight, but over time it has become the go-to tool for local politicians pushing economic development in general. For example, Baltimore is considering using TIF to raise $535 million to help Under Armor founder Kevin Plank develop Port Covington.

So how does TIF work? Though the particulars can vary by state, the basic mechanism is usually similar. First, an area is designated as a TIF district. TIF districts are mostly industrial or commercial areas rather than residential areas since the goal is to encourage economic development.

Usually, in an effort to ensure that TIF is used appropriately, the municipal government that designates the area as a TIF has to assert that economic development would not take place absent the TIF designation and subsequent investment. This is known as the ‘but-for’ test, since the argument is that development would not occur but for the TIF. Though the ‘but-for’ test is still applied, some argue that it is largely pro forma.

Once an area has been designated as a TIF district, the property values in the area are assessed in order to create a baseline value. The current property tax rate is applied to the baseline assessed value to determine the amount of revenue that is used for the provision of local government goods and services (roads, police, fire, water etc.). This value will then be frozen for a set period of time (e.g. up to 30 years in North Carolina), and any increase in assessed property values that occurs after this time and the subsequent revenue generated will be used to pay for the economic development project(s) in the TIF district.

The key idea is that municipalities can borrow against the projected property value increases in order to pay for current economic development projects. A simple numerical example will help clarify how TIF works.

In the table below there are five years. In year 1 the assessed value of the property in the TIF district is $20 million and it is determined that it takes $1 million per year to provide the government goods and services needed in the area (road maintenance, sewage lines, police/fire protection, etc.). A tax rate of 5% is applied to the $20 million of assessed value to raise the necessary $1 million (Tax revenue column).

TIF example table

The municipality issues bonds totaling $1 million to invest in an economic development project in the TIF district. As an example, let’s say the project is renovating an old business park in order to make it more attractive to 21st century startups. The plan is that improving the business park will make the area more desirable and increase the property values in the TIF district. As the assessed value increases the extra tax revenue raised by applying the 5% rate to the incremental value of the property will be used to pay off the bonds (incremental revenue column).

Meanwhile, the $1 million required for providing the government goods and services will remain intact, since only the incremental increase in assessed value is used to pay for the business park improvements. Hence the term Tax Increment Financing.

As shown in the table, if the assessed value of the property increases by $2 million per year for 4 years the municipality will recoup the $1 million required to amortize the bond (I’m omitting interest to keep it simple). Each $1 million dollars of increased value increase tax revenue by $50,000 without increasing the tax rate, which is what allows the municipality to pay for the economic development without raising property tax rates. For many city officials this is an attractive feature since property owners usually don’t like tax rate increases.

City officials may also prefer TIF to the issuance of general obligation bonds since the latter often require voter approval while TIF does not. This is the case in North Carolina. TIF supporters claim that this gives city officials more flexibility in dealing with the particular needs of development projects. However, it also allows influential individuals to push TIF through for projects that a majority of voters may not support.

While TIF can be used for traditional government goods like roads, sewer systems, water systems, and public transportation, it can also be used for private goods like business parks and sports facilities. The former arguably provide direct benefits to all firms in the TIF district since better roads, streetscapes and water systems can be used by any firm in the area. The latter projects, though they may provide indirect benefits to nearby firms in the form of more attractive surroundings and increased property values, mostly benefit the owners of entity receiving the development funding. Like other development incentives, TIF can be used to subsidize private businesses with taxpayer dollars.

Projects that use TIF are often described as ‘self-financing’ since the project itself is supposedly what creates the higher property values that pay for it. Additionally, TIF is often sold to voters as a way to create jobs or spur additional private investment in blighted areas. But there is no guarantee that the development project will lead to increased private sector investment, more jobs or higher property values. Researchers at the UNC School of Government explain the risks of TIF in a 2008 Economic Bulletin:

“Tax increment financing is not a silver bullet solution to development problems. There is no guarantee that the initial public investment will spur sufficient private investment, over time, that creates enough increment to pay back the bonds. Moreover, even if the investment succeeds on paper, it may do so by “capturing” growth that would have occurred even without the investment. Successful TIF districts can place an additional strain on existing public resources like schools and parks, whose funding is frozen at base valuation levels while growth in the district increases demand for their services.”

The researchers also note that it’s often larger corporations that municipalities are trying to attract with TIF dollars, and any subsidies via TIF that the municipality provides to the larger firm gives it an advantage over its already-established, local competitors. This is even more unfair when the local competitor is a small, mom-and-pop business that already faces a difficult challenge due to economies of scale.

There is also little evidence that TIF regularly provides the job or private sector investment that its supporters promise. Chicago is one of the largest users of TIF for economic development and its program has been one of the most widely studied. Research on Chicago’s TIF program found that “Overall, TIF failed to produce the promise of jobs, business development or real estate activity at the neighborhood level beyond what would have occurred without TIF.”

If economic development projects that rely on TIF do not generate additional development above and beyond what would have occurred anyway, then the additional tax revenue due to the higher assessed values is used to pay for an economic development project that didn’t really add anything. Without TIF, that revenue could have been used for providing other government goods and services such as infrastructure or better police and fire protection. Once TIF is used, the additional revenue must be used to pay for the economic development project: it cannot be spent on other services that residents might prefer.

Another study, also looking at the Chicago metro area, found that cities that adopt TIF experience slower property value growth than those that do not. The authors suggest that this is due to a reallocation of resources to TIF districts from other areas of the city. The result is that the TIF districts grow at the expense of the municipality as a whole. This is an example of the TIF working on paper, but only because it is pilfering growth that would have occurred in other areas of the city.

Local politicians often like tax increment financing because it is relatively flexible and enables them to be entrepreneurial in some sense: local officials as venture capitalists. It’s also an easier sell than a tax rate increase or general obligation bonds that require a voter referendum.

But politicians tend to make bad venture capitalists for several reasons. First, it’s usually not their area of expertise and it’s hard: even the professionals occasionally lose money. Second, as Milton Friedman pointed out, people tend to be more careless when spending other people’s money. Local officials aren’t investing their own money in these projects, and when people invest or spend other people’s money they tend to emphasize the positive outcomes and downplay the negative ones since they aren’t directly affected. Third, pecuniary factors don’t always drive the decision. Different politicians like different industries and businesses – green energy, biotech, advanced manufacturing, etc. – for various reasons and their subjective, non-pecuniary preferences may cause them to ignore the underlying financials of a project and support a bad investment.

If TIF is going to be used it should be used on things like public infrastructure – roads, sewer/water lines, sidewalks – rather than specific private businesses. This makes it harder to get distracted by non-pecuniary factors and does a better – though not perfect – job of directly helping development in general rather than a specific company or private developer. But taxpayers should be aware of the dangers of TIF and politicians and developers should not tout it as a panacea for jump-starting an area’s economy.

Scranton, PA and the failures of top-down planning

City officials in Scranton, PA are concerned that a recently released U.S. census map used as a basis for distributing federal grant money doesn’t reflect reality. The map was created using 2010 census data and identifies which neighborhoods meet the U.S. government’s criteria for low-to-moderate-income classification. Such neighborhoods are eligible to receive Community Development Block grant (CDBG) funding.

Scranton Councilman Wayne Evans stated that:

“A lot of us feel that the map is inaccurate, knowing the neighborhoods like we do,”

The city is hoping to conduct their own survey of the area and then use the results to petition the federal government to change the designations of the areas city officials believe are misclassified so they can receive funding.

This situation is a great example of the importance of local knowledge. Economist F.A. Hayek wrote the seminal paper on the importance of local knowledge in 1945. In his book Doing Bad by Doing Good, economist Chris Coyne builds on Hayek’s idea and defines the “planner’s problem” as “the inability of nonmarket participants to access relevant knowledge regarding how to allocate resources in a welfare-maximizing way in the face of a variety of competing, feasible alternatives.” The primary goal of the CDBG program is to create viable urban communities. In order to accomplish this a top-down planner needs to take certain steps: 1) the place to be developed needs to be identified and the goals of the development need to be established; 2) the availability of the resources needed for the development project needs to be confirmed and the resources need to be allocated; and 3) a feedback mechanism needs to be identified that can confirm that the goals are met. If any of these steps are not taken effective economic development will not occur.

As the example from Scranton shows, sometimes the planner – in this case the Department of Housing and Urban Development – fails to carry out step 1 effectively: Scranton officials and HUD can’t even agree on the place to be developed. Instead of letting the local officials who are knowledgeable about the area allocate the CDBGs, HUD officials in Washington bypass them by identifying the areas that need help via census data. Sometimes this approach might work, but when it doesn’t resources will be given to relatively prosperous areas while poorer areas are ignored.

The misallocation of resources will be an issue as long as the ability to allocate the funds is severed from the people with local knowledge of the communities. Cities and municipalities are receiving more and more of their revenues from the state and federal government, as seen in the graph below for Pennsylvania, and this contributes to situations like the one in Scranton.

PA intergov grants

As shown in the graph, total intergovernmental revenue and state intergovernmental to local governments in Pennsylvania increased in real terms from 1992 to 2012 (measured on the left vertical axis). In 1992, total intergovernmental revenue to local governments was equal to 59% of the revenue that local governments raised on their own (the orange line measured on the right vertical axis). In 2012 it was equal to 69%, an increase of 10 percentage points. This means that local governments became more dependent on higher-level governments for funding.

Funding from higher-level governments usually comes with restrictions and conditions that must be met, which prevents local citizens from using their local knowledge to alleviate the problems in their community. The further away decisions makers are from the region, the more likely they are to misidentify the problem areas. In Scranton’s case, city officials now have to expend scarce resources conducting their own survey and petitioning the federal government to change the neighborhood classifications.

Local knowledge is important and it should be utilized by decision makers. State and federal governments should limit intergovernmental transfers and allow local communities to keep more of their own tax dollars, which they can then use to address their own local issues.

Post-Katrina HUD funding has underwhelmed in Gulfport

Hurricane Katrina made landfall 10 years ago and devastated much of the gulf coast. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, both public and private aid flooded into the effected areas. Not all of this aid was effective, and my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have meticulously analyzed what worked, what didn’t, and how the region was largely able to get back on its feet.

One project that is still being scrutinized is the Port of Gulfport Restoration Program. In 2007 the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) requested that $567 million of federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds be diverted to the newly created Port of Gulfport Restoration Program. Prior to Katrina there were 2,058 direct maritime jobs at the port, and the 2007 plan submitted to HUD projected that there would be 5,400 direct, indirect, and induced jobs once the restoration project was complete in 2015. In return for the money the administrators promised HUD that at least 1,300 jobs would be created, and HUD Secretary Julian Castro was recently in Gulfport to check on the progress that has been made. As is typical with HUD projects, the actual progress on the ground has not lived up to the hype.

In September of 2014, nine years after Katrina, the port employed only 814 people. This was well short of even the 2,348 jobs predicted by 2010 in the original 2007 plan. Ignoring the fact that jobs are a poor metric for judging economic development – labor is a cost, not a benefit – the project has failed to live up to the promise made to federal taxpayers who are footing the bill.

HUD funding has a long history of failure. Billions of HUD money has poured into cities such as Detroit and Cleveland since the 1970s with little to show for it. Moreover, any successful HUD story is really just the result of transferring economic activity from one place to another. The $570 million being spent in Gulfport came from taxpayers all over the country who could have spent that money on other things. Moving all of that money to Gulfport caused small declines in economic activity all over the country, such as less investment in local businesses and/or lower demand for local goods and services. These small declines are hard to see relative to the big splash that $570 million in spending creates, but they are real and they do affect people.

Large, federal spending projects rarely live up to their hype and usually waste resources. Local citizens using local assets are often much more effective at revitalizing devastated communities. There are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina, and at the top of the list is don’t expect too much from federally funded programs – they are usually not up to the challenge.

More reasons why intergovernmental grants are harmful

In a recent blog post I explained how intergovernmental grants subsidize some businesses at the expense of others. But that is just one of several negative features of intergovernmental grants. They also make local governments less accountable for their fiscal decisions by allowing them to increase spending without increasing taxes. The Community Development Blog Grant (CDBG) money that local governments spend on city services or use to subsidize private businesses is provided by taxpayers from all over the country. Unlike locally raised money, when cities spend CDBG money they don’t have to first convince local voters to provide them with the funds. This lack of accountability often results in wasteful spending.

These grants also erode fiscal competition between cities and reduce the incentive to pursue policies that create economic growth. If local governments can receive funds for projects meant to bolster their tax base regardless of their fiscal policies, they have less of an incentive to create a fiscal environment that is conducive to economic growth. The feedback loop between growth promoting policies and actual economic growth is impaired when revenue can be generated independently of such policies e.g. by successfully applying for intergovernmental grants.

Some of the largest recipients of CDBG money are cities that have been declining since the 1950s. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBG dollars given to nine cities that were in the top 15 of the largest cities in the US by population in 1950. (Click on graphs to enlarge. Data used in the graphs are here.)

CDBGs 9 cities 1950

None of these cities were in the top 15 cities in 2014 and most of them have lost a substantial amount of people since 1950. In Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Buffalo the CDBG money has not reversed or even slowed their decline and yet the federal government continues to give these cities millions of dollars each year. The purpose of these grants is to create sustainable economic development in the recipient cities but it is difficult to argue that such development has occurred.

Contrast the amount of money given to the cities above with that of the cities below:

CDBGs 9 cities 2014

By 2014 the nine cities in the second graph had replaced the other cities in the top 15 largest US cities by population. Out of the nine cities in the second graph only one, San Antonio, has received $1 billion or more in CDBG funds. In comparison, every city in the first graph has received at least that much.

While there are a lot of factors that contribute to the decline of some cities and the rise of others (such as the general movement of the population towards warmer weather), these graphs are evidence that the CDBG program is incapable of saving Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc. from population and economic decline. Detroit alone has received nearly $3 billion in CDBG grants over the last 40 years yet still had to declare bankruptcy in 2013. St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Milwaukee are other examples of cities that have received a relatively large amount of CDBG funding yet are still struggling with population decline and budget issues. Place-based, redistributive policies like the CDBG program misallocate resources from growing cities to declining cities and reduce the incentive for local governments to implement policies that encourage economic growth.

Moreover, if place-based subsidies, such as the CDBG program, do create some temporary local economic growth, there is evidence that this growth is merely shifted from other areas. In a study on the Tennessee Valley Authority, perhaps the most ambitious place-based program in the country’s history, economists Patrick Kline and Enrico Moretti (2014) found that the economic gains that accrued to the area covered by the TVA were completely offset by losses in other parts of the country. As they state, “Thus, we estimate that the spillovers in the TVA region were fully offset by the losses in the rest of the country…Notably, this finding casts doubt on the traditional big push rationale for spatially progressive subsidies.” This study is further evidence for what other economists have been saying for a long time: Subsidized economic growth in one area, if it occurs, comes at the expense of growth in other areas and does not grow the US economy as a whole.

Intergovernmental grant to gelato maker distorts market competition

Intergovernmental grants are grants that are given to one level of government by another e.g. federal to state/local or state to local. In addition to being used on public works and services they also subsidize the development of private goods. The Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) is a federally funded grant program that distributes grants and subsidized loans to local and state governments which then use them or award them to other businesses and non-profits. The grants can be used on a variety of projects. Since 1975 the CDBG program has given over $143 billion ($215 billion adjusted for inflation) to state and local governments. The graph below (click to enlarge) shows the total dollars by year adjusted for inflation (2009 dollars) and the number of entitlement grantees by year. While the total amount of funding has declined over time, it was still $2.8 billion in 2014.

cdbg dollars, grantees

Intergovernmental grant programs like CDBG are based on the incorrect idea that moving money around produces economic development and creates a net-positive amount of jobs. But only productive entrepreneurs who create value for consumers can create jobs. The CDBG program and others like it distort the entrepreneurial process and within-industry competition by giving an artificial advantage to the companies that receive grants. This results in more workers and capital flowing into the grant-receiving business rather than their unsubsidized competitors. For example, Brunswick, ME is giving a $350,000 CDBG to Gelato Fiasco to help the company buy new equipment. Meanwhile, nearby competitors Bohemian Coffeehouse, Little Dog Coffee Shop, and Dairy Queen are not receiving any grant money. Governments at all levels, such as Brunswick’s, should not pick winners and losers via a grant process that ultimately favors some constituents over others.

Some other projects that the CDBG program has helped fund are: a soybean processing plant in Arkansas, a new facility for a farmer’s market in Oregon, solar panels for houses in San Diego, and waterfront housing in Burlington, VT. Like the Gelato Fiasco example, these are all examples of private goods, not public, and the production of such goods is best left to the market. If private investors who are subject to market forces are unwilling to produce a private good then it is probably not a worthwhile venture, as the lack of private investment implies that the expected cost exceeds the expected revenue. Private investors and entrepreneurs want to make a profit and the profit incentive promotes wise investments. Governments don’t confront the same profit incentive and this often leads to wasteful spending.

At its best, a government can create the conditions that encourage economic development and job creation: the enforcement of private property rights, a court system to adjudicate disputes, a police force to maintain law and order, and perhaps some basic infrastructure. The scope of a local government should be limited to these tasks.

Corporate welfare spending is not transparent

Over a century ago, the Italian political economist Amilcare Puviani suggested that policy makers have a strong incentive to obscure the cost of government. Known as “fiscal illusion,” the idea is that voters will be willing to spend more money on government if they think its costs is lower than it actually is. Fiscal illusion explains a great deal of public choices, including the popularity of deficit spending.

It also explains why the public knows the least about some of the most controversial items in the public budget such as corporate welfare. But some would like to change this. Here are Jess Fields and Tom “Smitty” Smith, writing in the (subscription required) Austin-American Statesman:

Texans believe in government transparency and accountability. For this reason, we have some of the most advanced open-government initiatives in the nation. Yet one policy area remains outside the view of the general public: economic development.

When local governments cut deals that result in millions in incentives, they can do it behind closed doors in “executive session” — legally — thanks to exceptions to the Open Meetings and Public Information Acts for “economic development negotiations.”

Fields is a senior policy analyst at the free enterprise Texas Public Policy Foundation, while Smith is the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a progressive consumer advocacy group started by Ralph Nader in the ‘70s.

Texans aren’t the only ones interested in making corporate welfare more transparent. The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is considering rules that would require governments to report the tax privileges that they hand out to businesses. Here is Liz Farmer, writing in Governing Magazine:

Specifically, GASB is proposing that state and local governments disclose information about property and other tax abatement agreements in their annual financial statements. If approved, the new disclosures could shed light on an area of government finance and provide hard data on information that is assembled sporadically, if at all. Scores of public and private groups support the proposal and it has proven to be one of GASB’s most debated topic yet, as nearly 300 groups or individuals submitted comment letters to the board. But many still say the requirements don’t go far enough.

She notes that the proposal misses a number of tax privileges including:

  • Tax increment financing (TIF),
  • Agreements to discount personal income taxes,
  • “[P]rograms that reduce the tax liabilities of businesses or similar classes of taxpayers.”

Because of these omissions the new GASB rules may only capture about one-third of all tax expenditures.

Puviani would have predicted that.

North Carolina Reconsiders its Rejection of Corporate Welfare

A couple of weeks ago, something surprising happened in North Carolina. As the Carolina Journal explained:

RALEIGH — Twenty-eight House Republicans bolted party ranks Tuesday, joining 26 Democrats to defeat an economic incentives program that some labeled “corporate welfare.” It was a rebuke to House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Gov. Pat McCrory, all of whom championed the legislation.

The 47-54 vote against House Bill 1224 signaled that the end of the meandering 2014 “short session” of the General Assembly could be nigh, arriving perhaps as early as today.

The move marked an unusual triumph of economic rationality over special-interest politics. As Brian Balfour explained it in the Civitas Review, the bill combined two unrelated policies: it capped local sales tax rates while expanding the state’s corporate welfare efforts. Now, however, the Washington Post is reporting that the governor is under intense pressure to call a special session so the legislature can reconsider the legislation.

If they do come back into session, legislators would be wise to study up on the issue before they reconsider their votes. A good place to start would be a recent Mercatus working paper by George Mason University Professor Christopher Coyne and GMU Ph.D. candidate Lotta Moberg. The paper explores the effects of targeted economic development incentives, stressing two under-appreciated downsides to the policies:

(1) they lead to a misallocation of resources, and (2) they encourage rent-seeking and thus cronyism. We argue that these costs, which are often longer-term and not readily observable at the time the targeted benefits are granted, may very well outweigh any possible short-term economic benefits.

To gain a better understanding of the effects of these policies, my colleague Olivia Gonzalez and I have begun looking at the empirical literature. While our results are still preliminary, what we have found so far should give Tar Heel legislators pause in re-thinking their decision. We found 26 peer-reviewed papers that assess the effect of targeted incentives on the broader economy (a surprisingly large number of studies only look at whether incentives help the privileged firms and sectors, ignoring how they affect the broader economy).

The pie chart below shows what we’ve found. Just 2 studies, constituting 8 percent of the sample, found that targeted incentives positively affect the economy-at-large. Four studies (15 percent of the sample) found that targeted incentives negatively affect the broader economy. Another 6 studies found that they produce some positive effects (such as higher employment) but also some negative effects (such as lower labor force participation). One study in the sample found a distinct group (manufacturers) benefited while others (finance, insurance, and real estate) lost. Thirteen studies (half the sample), simply found no statistically significant effect of targeted incentives.

Targeted incentives research pie chartOn balance, this is not a strong case for the effectiveness of targeted economic development incentives. It suggests that when states privilege particular firms or industries, they are wasting taxpayer resources, benefiting some at the expense of others, and potentially harming the broader economy. Of course, some pathologies of privilege such as long-term resource misallocation, rent-seeking waste, and corruption may not manifest themselves for years and are not likely to be picked up by these studies.