Tag Archives: Ed Glaeser

Congestion taxes can make society worse off

A new paper by Jeffrey Brinkman in the Journal of Urban Economics (working version here) analyzes two phenomena that are pervasive in urban economics—congestion costs and agglomeration economies. What’s interesting about this paper is that it formalizes the tradeoff that exists between the two. As stated in the abstract:

“Congestion costs in urban areas are significant and clearly represent a negative externality. Nonetheless, economists also recognize the production advantages of urban density in the form of positive agglomeration externalities.”

Agglomeration economies is a term used to describe the benefits that occur when firms and workers are in proximity to one another. This behavior results in firm clusters and cities. In regard to the existence of agglomeration economies, economist Ed Glaeser writes:

“The concentration of people and industries has long been seen by economists as evidence for the existence of agglomeration economies. After all, why would so many people suffer the inconvenience of crowding into the island of Manhattan if there weren’t also advantages from being close to so much economic activity?”

Since congestion is a result of the high population density that is also associated with agglomeration economies, there is tradeoff between the two. Decreasing congestion costs ultimately means spreading out people and firms so that both are more equally distributed across space. Using other modes of transportation such as buses, bikes and subways may alleviate some congestion without changing the location of firms, but the examples of London and New York City, which have robust public transportation systems and a large amount of congestion, show that such a strategy has its limits.

The typical congestion analysis correctly states that workers not only face a private cost from commuting into the city, but that they impose a cost on others in the form of more traffic that slows everyone down. Since they do not consider this cost when deciding whether or not to commute the result is too much traffic.

In economic jargon, the cost to society due to an additional commuter—the marginal social cost (MSC)—is greater than the private cost to the individual—the marginal private cost (MPC). The result is that too many people commute, traffic is too high and society experiences a deadweight loss (DWL). We can depict this analysis using the basic marginal benefit/cost framework.

congestion diagram 1

In this diagram the MSC is higher than the MPC line, and so the traffic that results from equating the driver’s marginal benefit (MB) to her MPC, CH, is too high. The result is the red deadweight loss triangle which reduces society’s welfare. The correct amount is C*, which is the amount that results when the MB intersects the MSC.

The economist’s solution to this problem is to levy a tax equal to the difference between the MSC and the MPC. This difference is sometimes referred to as the marginal damage cost (MDC) and it’s equal to the external cost imposed on society from an additional commuter. The tax aligns the MPC with the MSC and induces the correct amount of traffic, C*. London is one of the few cities that has a congestion charge intended to alleviate inner-city congestion.

But this analysis gets more complicated if an activity has external benefits along with external costs. In that case the diagram would look like this:

congestion diagram 2

Now there is a marginal social benefit associated with traffic—agglomeration economies—that causes the marginal benefit of traffic to diverge from the benefits to society. In this case the efficient amount of traffic is C**, which is where the MSC line intersects the MSB line. Imposing a congestion tax equal to the MDC still eliminates the red DWL, but it creates the smaller blue DWL since it reduces too much traffic. This occurs because the congestion tax does not take into account the positive effects of agglomeration economies.

One solution would be to impose a congestion tax equal to the MDC and then pay a subsidy equal to the distance between the MSB and the MB lines. This would align the private benefits and costs with the social benefits and costs and lead to C**. Alternatively, since in this example the cost gap is greater than the benefit gap, the government could levy a smaller tax. This is shown below.

congestion diagram 3

In this case the tax is decreased to the gap between the dotted red line and the MPC curve, and this tax leads to the correct amount of traffic since it raises the private cost just enough to get the traffic level down from CH to C**, which is the efficient amount (associated with the point where the MSB intersects the MSC).

If city officials ignore the positive effect of agglomeration economies on productivity when calculating their congestion taxes they may set the tax too high. Overall welfare may improve even if the tax is too high (it depends on the size of the DWL when no tax is implemented) but society will not be as well off as it would be if the positive agglomeration effects were taken into account. Alternatively, if the gap between the MSB and the MB is greater than the cost gap, any positive tax would reduce welfare since the correct policy would be a subsidy.

This paper reminds me that the world is complicated. While taxing activities that generate negative externalities and subsidizing activities that generate positive externalities is economically sound, calculating the appropriate tax or subsidy is often difficult in practice. And, as the preceding analysis demonstrated, sometimes both need to be calculated in order to implement the appropriate policy.

New York’s Population Challenge

Last week at City Journal, Aaron Renn explored the New York region’s loss of domestic residents since 2000. He demonstrates that one of the world’s economic powerhouses is falling victim to the trend of domestic outmigration that New York state is seeing. Between 2000 and 2010, the New YOrk region lost 2 million domestic residents and they took with them billions of dollars of income. In Freedom in the 50 States, Will Ruger and Jason Sorens rank New York as the country’s least-free state based on its regulatory and tax regimes. They point to its tax burden — the highest in the nation —  and indebtedness as a factors contributing to the state losing 9-percent of its domestic population on net since 2000. Renn also posits that high tax rates are a leading cause for residents leaving New York City, many of them moving to Sun Belt states.

While the New York City region is only maintaining a positive population growth rate through births and international immigration, it’s far from the case that no one is willing to suffer its high tax rates in exchange for the city’s economic dynamism and cultural amenities. Rather the city’s exorbitant rental rates demonstrate that millions of people are willing to pay a premium to live in the region in spite of city and state policies that hamper economic development.  The vacancy rate for apartments is below 2-percent, well under many estimates for the natural vacancy rate. While lower taxes at the state and municipal levels in the New York region would reduce the flow of domestic outmigration at the margin, they would also increase competition for the city’s coveted apartments.

Are New York City’s amenities so desirable that its policymakers don’t need to worry about losing more residents to other states than they’re gaining? Its own not-so-distant history indicates that even the Big Apple is susceptible to the ravages of population loss. From 1950 to 1980, the city’s population fell from 7.9 million to 7 million, with most of that loss occurring in the 1970s. This time period corresponded with sharp increases in crime and the city’s famous default. These are predictable consequences of urban population decline, particularly in indebted cities where a decrease in tax base equates with inability to meet obligations to creditors .

While pursuing policy reforms designed to boost the state’s competitive standing to attract businesses and residents is a key piece of ensuring the city does not fall prey to population exodus, perhaps most importantly, city policymakers should examine their land use restrictions that limit would-be residents from moving to the city. Over the past decade, New York’s housing stock has grown only 5.3% in the face of the highest rental rates in the country for much of this time period. Historic preservation, density restrictions, and an onerous review process prevent the city’s housing stock from growing to meet demand.

Renn points out that most of New York’s domestic inmigration comes from midwestern cities and college towns across the country. Presumably many of these new residents are early in their careers and are on the margin of being able to afford New York rents. If New York housing were more attainable, more American young people would select the city as the starting place for their careers and it would attract more of the foreign immigrants essential to maintaining the city’s diversity and innovation. Ed Glaeser explains that those states that are successfully attracting more residents, like Texas and Georgia, are also those in which developers are able to build more housing with fewer restrictions. By allowing more housing in New York City and the surrounding areas, policymakers would both protect their tax base and help to maintain the city as a center of innovation and economic growth. In their effort to retain citizens — and particularly high-income retirees — New York City and New York state policymakers will need to revisit their punishing tax schemes. But at least as importantly they should focus on allowing those residents who would like to move to the city for economic and cultural opportunities to be able to afford to do so.

 

 

 

 

Detroit’s Art is Not the Key to its Revival

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free-market urban development.

Detroit’s art assets have made news as Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is evaluating the city’s assets for a potential bankruptcy filing. Belle Isle, where Rod Lockwood recently proposed a free city-state may be on the chopping block, but according to a Detroit Free Press poll, residents are most concerned about the city auctioning pieces from the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ collection.

I’ve written previously about the downsides of publicly funding art from the perspective of free speech, but the Detroit case presents a new reason why cities are not the best keepers of artistic treasures. Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette contrasts the Detroit Institute of Art’s situation with the benefits of a museum funded with an endowment:

As usual, Andrew Carnegie knew what he was doing.

The steel baron turned philanthropist put the City of Pittsburgh in charge of operating the library he gave it in 1895, but when he added an art museum to the Oakland facility just one year later, he kept it out of city hands.

“The city is not to maintain [the art gallery and museum],” Carnegie said in his dedication address. “These are to be regarded as wise extravagances, for which public revenues should not be given, not as necessaries. These are such gifts as a citizen may fitly bestow upon a community and endow, so that it will cost the city nothing.”

Museums and other cultural amenities  are a sign of a city’s success, not drivers of success itself. The correlation between culturally interesting cities and cities with strong economic opportunities is often mistakenly interpreted to demonstrate that if cities do more to build their cultural appeal from the top down, they will encourage job growth in the process. Rather, a productive and well-educated population both demand and supply these amenities. While an art museum may increase tourism on the margin, it is unlikely to draw additional firms or individuals away from other locations. Detroit is sitting on an estimated $2.5 billion in art, enough to put a dent in its $15 billion long-term obligations.

On a recent episode of Econtalk, Ed Glaeser explains that over investing in public amenities relative to demand is a sign of continued challenges for municipalities:

It is so natural and so attractive to plunk down a new skyscraper and declare Cleveland has ‘come back.’ Or to build a monorail and pretend you are going to be just as successful as Disney World, for some reason. You get short-term headlines even when this infrastructure is just totally ill-suited for the actual needs of the city. The hallmark of declining cities is to have over-funded infrastructure relative to the level of demand in that city.

Similarly, cities throwing resources at museums and other amenities designed to attract the “creative class” are highly likely to fail because bureaucrats are poorly-positioned to learn about and respond to their municipalities’ cultural demands. When cities do successfully provide cultural amenities, they are catering primarily to well-educated, high-income residents — not the groups that should be the targets of government programs.

I think it’s highly unlikely that Detroit will sell off any taxpayer-owned art to pay down its debts based on the media and political blow back the possibility has seen. However, seeing the city in a position where it owns enough art to cover a substantial portion of its unsustainable long-term debts demonstrates why municipalities should not be curators. Tying up municipal resources in art is irresponsible. The uncertainty that the city’s debt creates for future tax and service provision is clearly detrimental to economic growth. While assets like museums are nice for residents, they do not attract or keep residents or jobs.

Detroit does have an important asset; new ideas need cheap rent. Detroit’s affordable real estate is attracting start ups with five of the metro area’s young companies making Brand Innovator’s list of American brands to watch. While these budding businesses could be key players in the city’s economic recovery, top-down plans to preserve and increase cultural amenities for these firms’ employees will not.

Freedom in the 50 States and Migration

In last month’s publication of Freedom in the 50 StatesWill Ruger and Jason Sorens point to net domestic migration as an indicator that Americans demonstrate their preferences for more libertarian states by where they choose to live. They explain, ”

In each case, the bivariate relationship between freedom and migration is positive. However, it is strongest for fiscal freedom and weakest for personal freedom.”

The authors go on to use regression analysis to control for some of the other variables that likely cause people to move from one state to another:

We also try a regression specification including state cost of living from 2000, as estimated by political scientists William D. Berry, Richard C. Fording and Russell L. Hanson.7 This is an index variable linked to a value of 10 for the national average in 2007, the last date for which a value is available. There is some concern that this variable is endogenous to freedom. For instance, it correlates with the Wharton land-use regulation variable at r = 0.67, implying that strict land-use regulation drives up the cost of living. It also correlates with fiscal freedom at −0.35, perhaps implying that taxation can also drive up cost of living.

Finally, we also try including growth in personal income from 2000 to 2007 from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, adjusted for change in state cost of living from Berry, Fording, and Hanson. This variable is even more clearly endogenous to economic freedom, as well as to migration (more workers means more personal income). Nevertheless, we want to put the hypothesis that freedom attracts people to the strictest reasonable tests.

With this more in-depth analysis, the authors find that the three types of freedom they study — fiscal, regulatory, and personal — are all positively associated with net migration (PDF p. 97). In particular, the relationship between land use regulation and migration strikes me as an interesting one. States with the strictest land use regulations prevent in-migration by disallowing new housing development. According to Census data, New York City grew by about 2-percent between 2000 to 2010, including natural growth and foreign immigration. This is a significant slowdown from the 1990s. While the Big Apple wouldn’t be expected to attract new residents through libertarian policies, it does offer many economic and cultural opportunities that people might value. Ed Glaeser explains that by preventing new development, city- and state-level restrictions have prevented more people from being able to move to New York City:

The high prices that persist in New York City suggest that the demand for city living isn’t falling. Case-Shiller data, which captures the metropolitan area rather than the city, shows that the New York area’s prices have risen by 67 percent since 2000 (32 percent in real terms), more than any metropolitan area in the sample except Los Angeles.

But the combination of economic strength and high prices need not lead to population growth if an area doesn’t build many more units. In that case, high housing demand leads only to higher prices — not more people.

[…]

The Bloomberg administration has worked hard to allow more building, but the recent Census numbers seem to suggest that a combination of slow growth and continuing high prices implies that New York’s barriers to building, such as a complex zoning code and ever more Historic Preservation Districts, are still shutting out families that would like to move to the city.

This is just one city-level example, but New York City demonstrates that locations with the strictest land use regulations are not just discouraging in-migration with policies that limit residents’ freedom, they are also preventing people from moving to their jurisdictions by restricting growth in housing stock.

Maryland realtors fight to protect their subsidy

Image via Flickr user Images_of_Money

We’ve already explored Governor O’Malley’s proposal for the Maryland budget here and here, but recently, a perhaps unintended consequence of the budget came to light. By limiting the deduction that residents earning over $100,000 can make on their state income taxes, the proposed budget would limit the size of the mortgage interest tax deduction for many taxpayers.

I stand by my earlier argument that reducing deductions for only one group of people is not a step in the direction of fairness, but a reduction in the mortgage interest tax deduction may be a positive side effect of an otherwise bad policy. From a limited-government perspective, the obvious downside of a reduction in the mortgage-interest tax deduction is that this represents a revenue-positive change in Maryland’s tax code in a state that already has one of the highest tax burdens in the country. Overall though, I think reducing this tax expenditure is a positive change because the policy has many negative consequences.

While the causes of the financial crisis were many, by subsidizing investment in homes, the mortgage interest tax deduction played some part in the overvaluation of housing stock. Aside from the poor incentives that this tax expenditure creates in financial markets, it amounts to favoritism of suburbs over cities. In Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser argues that the deduction leads many people to abandon renting in a city center for homeownership in the suburbs. However the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston provides evidence that the policy is more likely to lead people to buy larger homes than they otherwise would rather than trading renting for buying a home. Richard K. Green and Andrew Reschovsky write:

If one set out to design a policy to encourage homeownership, it would make sense to target the
largest subsidies to the households least likely to be homeowners, while providing little or no subsidy to
households likely to become homeowners even without a subsidy. Data from countries that do not
subsidize homeownership (such as Canada, Australia, and Japan) indicate, not surprisingly, that
homeownership rates rise with household income. This suggests that a policy to encourage
homeownership should give the largest incentives to households with modest incomes and no subsidies
to high-income households.

The MID, however, does exactly the opposite. For low- to middle-income taxpayers, the mortgage
deduction provides little financial incentive to abandon renting for homeownership. For those
purchasing modestly priced houses and facing the lowest marginal tax rate (currently 10 percent) the
benefits of the mortgage deduction are small. In fact, for households with low state income taxes, the
mortgage deduction may be of no value at all, because the mortgage deduction, even when combined
with other itemized deductions, may be smaller than the standard deduction.

For most high-income taxpayers, the tax savings resulting from the MID are a minor influence on
their decision to become homeowners; these households are likely to own a home regardless of the tax
treatment of housing. Rather than encouraging homeownership among high-income households, the
MID provides an incentive to buy a larger house and to take out a bigger mortgage. Economists have
long argued that the result is an inefficient pattern of investment, with too many resources invested in
housing and too few resources placed in more productive investments in factories and machinery (Mills,
1989; Poterba, 1992).

This analysis ignores that those at the margin of being least likely to be homeowners are likely the riskiest loan candidates and those most likely to foreclose, but they do make a strong case for why the MID leads to larger homes. Regardless of whether the deduction primarily increases homeownership or leads to larger houses, it results in a subsidy for suburban sprawl and its negative side effects of traffic congestion and demand for public services across a wider geographic area.

Unsurprisingly, the Maryland Association of Realtors is strongly opposed to a budget that would lead to lower tax expenditures on housing. The current policy directly subsidizes their industry. The Washington Post reports:

The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors says that mortgage interest and property taxes account for almost 70 percent of total itemized deductions in Maryland, and they argue that the proposal, if passed, would further harm the area’s housing market, which has struggled to recover.

WAMU interviewed a leader among MD realtors on the issue:

Jim Scurvin, past president of the Howard County Realtors Association says it’s just wrong to jeopardize an industry responsible for 49 percent of revenue that goes to state and local government

“When someone buys a house, on the average you employ two people, and you put $60,000 into the economy right then and there,” he says. “Real estate is the lead when it comes to getting the economy moving again. We have the wind in our sails, the last thing we need is someone to knock the wind out.”

Scurvin, however, is acknowledging only the visible impact of the tax expenditure. As Frederic Bastiat artfully explained, all policies have unseen consequences. In this case, the unseen impact is that the mortgage interest tax deduction fuels malinvestment in housing at the expense of other, more productive sectors of the economy. While Governor O’Malley’s budget proposal has many negative features, the potential for reducing the state subsidy to housing could be its silver lining. Unfortunately as Maryland realtors demonstrate, eliminating tax expenditures is a painful and politically difficult process.