Tag Archives: Fraser Institute

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.

Economic Freedom, Growth, and What Might Have Been

Economists are obsessed with growth. And for good reason. Greater wealth doesn’t just buy us nicer vacations and fancier gadgets. It also buys longer life spans, better nutrition, and lower infant mortality. It buys more time with family, and less time at work. It buys greater self-reported happiness. And as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman has argued, wealth even seems to make us better people:

Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.

For much of my lifetime, brisk economic growth was the norm in the United States. From 1983 to 2000, annual growth in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP averaged 3.67 percent. During this period, the U.S. experienced only one (short and mild) recession in the early ‘90s. The era was known among macroeconomists as the “great moderation.”

But starting around the turn of the millennium, things changed. Instead of averaging 3.67 percent growth, the U.S. economy grew at less than half that rate, 1.78 percent on average. To see the effect of this deceleration, consider the chart below (data are from the BEA). The blue line shows actual GDP growth (as measured in billions of chained 2009 dollars).

The red line shows what might have happened if we’d continued to grow at the 3.67 percent rate which prevailed for the two previous decades. At this rate, the economy would have been 30 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

This assumes that the Great Recession never happened. So to see what would have happened to GDP if the Great Recession had still occurred but if growth had resumed (as it has in every other post-WWII recession), I calculated a second hypothetical growth path. The green line shows the hypothetical path of GDP had the economy still gone through the Great Recession but then resumed its normal 3.67 percent rate of growth from 2010 onward. Under this scenario, the economy would have been fully 8 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

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(Click to enlarge)

So what happened to growth? One answer is economic freedom—or a lack thereof. Just yesterday, the Fraser Institute released its annual Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by Professors James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of West Virginia University, the report assesses the degree to which people are free to exchange goods and services with one another without interference. As Adam Smith might have put it, it measures the degree to which we live under “a system of natural liberty.”

As the chart below shows, economic freedom was on the steady rise before 2000. This coincided with modest deregulation of a few industries under Carter and Reagan, tax cuts under Reagan and Clinton, free trade deals, and restrained growth in the size of government. But from 2000 onward, U.S. economic freedom has been in precipitous decline. This coincides with major new financial regulations under both Bush II and Obama, significant growth in government spending, and a steady erosion in measures of the rule of law.

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(Click to enlarge)

As I’ve noted before, the research on economic freedom is quite extensive (nearly 200 peer-reviewed academic studies use economic freedom as an explanatory variable). Moreover, meta-studies of that literature find “there is a solid finding of a direct positive association between economic freedom and economic growth.”

Perhaps the two charts have something to do with one another?

 

 

Economic freedom matters at the local level too

Since 1996 the Fraser Institute has published an annual economic freedom of the world index that ranks countries according to their level of economic freedom. They also publish an economic freedom of North America Index that ranks the US states, Canadian provinces, and Mexican provinces using similar data.

Both of these studies have been used to show that countries and states/provinces with relatively high levels of economic freedom tend to be better off in several ways, including higher GDP per capita, longer life expectancy, and greater economic growth. Countries with higher levels of economic freedom tend to have higher quality democracies as well.

A quick google search reveals that there has been a lot of other research that looks at the relationship between economic freedom and various outcomes at the country and state level. However, substantially less research has been done at the local level and there are two main reasons for this.

First, it’s hard to gather data at the local level. There are thousands of municipalities in the US and not all of them make their data easily available. This makes gathering data very costly in terms of time and resources. Second, a lot of policies that impact economic freedom are enacted at the federal and state level. Because of this many people probably don’t think about the considerable effects that local policy can have on local economies.

There has been one study that I know of that attempts to create an economic freedom index for metropolitan areas (MSAs). This study is by Dr. Dean Stansel of SMU, a coauthor of the economic freedom of North America index. The MSA economic freedom index runs from 0 (not free) to 10 (very free) and was created with 2002 data. I am currently working on a paper with Dean that uses this index, but I was recently inspired to use the index in a different way. I wanted to see if economic freedom at the MSA level impacted subsequent employment and population growth, so I gathered BEA data on employment and population and ran a few simple regressions. The dependent variables are at the top of each column in the table below and are private, non-farm employment growth from 2003 – 2014, proprietor employment growth from 2003 – 2014, and population growth from 2003 – 2014.

MSA econ freedom regressions

I also included a quality of life index independent variable from another study in order to control for the place-specific amenities of each MSA like weather and location. This variable measures how much people would be willing to pay to live in a particular MSA; a positive number means a person would pay to live in an area, while a negative number means a person would have to be paid to live in an area. Thus larger, positive numbers indicate more attractive areas. The index is constructed with 2000 data.

As shown in the table, economic freedom has a positive and significant effect on both measures of employment and population growth. The quality of life index is also positive and significant for private employment growth (column 1) and population growth (column 3, only at the 10% level). We can calculate the magnitude of the effects using the standard deviations from the table below.

MSA econ freedom sum stats

Using the standard deviation from column 1 (0.84) we can calculate that a one standard deviation increase in economic freedom would generate a 2 percentage point increase in private employment growth from 2003 – 2014 (0.84 x 0.024), a 4.5 percentage point increase in proprietor employment growth, and a 2.9 percentage point increase in population growth.  A one standard deviation change would be like increasing San Francisco’s level of economic freedom (6.70) to that of San Antonio’s (7.53).

Similarly, a one standard deviation increase in the quality of life index would lead to a 2.1 percentage point increase in private employment growth from 2003 – 2014 (0.000011 x 1912.86) and a 1.9 percentage point increase in population growth. A one standard deviation change would be like increasing the quality of life of Montgomery, AL (-21) to that of Myrtle Beach, SC (1643).

I think the most interesting finding is that quality of life does not affect proprietor employment while economic freedom’s largest effect is on proprietor employment (column 2). According to the BEA proprietor employment consists of the number of sole proprietorships and the number of general partners. Thus it can act as a proxy for the level of entrepreneurship in an MSA. This result implies that economic freedom is more important than things like weather and geographic location when it comes to promoting small business formation and entrepreneurship. This is a good sign for cities located in colder regions of the country like the Midwest and Northeast that can’t do much about their weather or location but can increase their level of economic freedom.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation and these simple regressions omit other factors that likely impact employment and population growth. But you have to start somewhere. And given what we know about the positive effects of economic freedom at the country and state level it seems reasonable to believe that it matters at the local level as well.

Economic Freedom In Decline

Today, the Fraser Institute released the 2011 version of the Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of Beloit College, the index is an annual measure of economic freedom. Drawing on 42 data points gathered from each of 141 countries, it assigns each nation an economic freedom score. The score reflects the degree to which citizens in the nation enjoy economic freedom as characterized by “personal choice, voluntary exchange coordinated by markets, freedom to enter and compete in markets, and protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.”

Chapter 3 of the new report features an essay by Jean-Pierre Chauffour, lead economist of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region. In Figure 3.1, reproduced below, Chauffour shows the relationship between economic freedom and the log of per capita income (adjusting for purchasing power parity).

But economic freedom seems to be about more than just per capita income. Readers of Neighborhood Effects know that scores of peer-reviewed studies have examined the relationship between economic freedom and all sorts of measures of well being. The overwhelming evidence is that economic freedom is positively related to things humans like (per capita income of the poor, life expectancy, access to clean water, etc.) and negative related to things humans don’t like (poverty, child labor, etc.). Some of the most sophisticated studies have even tried to disentangle cause and effect.

So where do we stand? The data are lagged, so this year’s report now calculates economic freedom through 2009. There are some bright spots. For example:

The chain-linked summary ratings of Uganda, Zambia, Nicaragua, Albania, and Peru have improved by three or more points since 1990.

There is also some bad news:

 ….In contrast, the summary ratings of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, United States, and Malaysia fell by eight tenths of a point or more between 1990 and 2009, causing their rankings to slip.

In fact, those countries that slipped the most since 2000 were: Argentina, Iceland, Ireland, the United States, and Venezuela.

To see just how far the U.S. has fallen, consider the graph below. The first phase shows the U.S. (chain-linked) economic freedom score from 1970 through 2000. It is slow and steady progress the whole way. The second phase shows the U.S. score from 2000 onward. It is a dramatic and precipitous drop. Notice, by the way, that the ascendant periods lasts through three presidents of two different parties. The descent also seems to have persisted irrespective of the party in office. It seems that the policies that impact economic freedom are not strongly related to partisanship.

Mercatus has its own state-level measure of economic freedom, developed by Jason Sorens of the University of Buffalo (SUNY) and William Ruger of Texas State University.

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Addendum: Here is Arnold Kling on the report. Here is David Henderson. Here is Mark Steyn. Here is Robert Lawson.