Tag Archives: government services

Fixing decades of fiscal distress in Scranton, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit, voice, and loyalty in cities

Economist Albert Hirschman’s 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States presents a theory of how consumers express their dissatisfaction to firms and other organizations after a decline in product or service quality. In terms of interjurisdictional competition exit is demonstrated by migration: dissatisfied residents migrate to a community that better matches their preferences for local government services, externality mitigation, and fiscal policy. Voice, on the other hand, requires staying in place and is usually manifested through voting. Other methods such as protests, letters, and public comments directed at officials may also be effective ways to create change.

Loyalty plays a role in whether voice or exit is employed. Someone who is loyal to a city will be less likely to exit due to a given deterioration in quality. Hirschman argues that loyalty serves an important function by limiting the use of exit and activating voice. If exit is too easy, the quality-conscious people most capable of using voice to elicit change at the local level will tend to leave early, sparking a “brain drain” and generating cumulative deterioration. If some of the most quality-conscious residents are loyal they will remain in place, at least initially, and try to fix a city’s problems from within i.e. they will use some method of voice.

The presence of loyalty within a city’s population has implications for city population decline and growth. The diagram below, based on one from Hirschman’s book on p. 90, shows the relationship between city quality and population.

Exit and loyalty diagram

Quality deteriorates as one moves up the y-axis and population increases along the x-axis, which enables a depiction of the relationship between quality and population similar to that of a traditional demand curve.

The example begins at point A. If quality declines from Q1 to Q2, the population will decline from Pa to Pb. The relatively small population decline relative to the decline in quality is due to the presence of loyalty. Loyalty can be conscious, meaning that the loyal residents are aware of the quality decline and are staying to try to improve the situation, or it can be unconscious, meaning that some residents are unaware that quality is deteriorating. These unaware residents appear loyal to outsiders, but in reality they have just not perceived the decline in quality. Perhaps the decline has not impacted their particular neighborhood or is so gradual that many people don’t realize it is happening. Hirschman notes that unconscious loyalty will not spark voice since by definition the resident is unaware that decline is occurring.

As quality continues to decline from Q2 to Q3 it becomes more observable and even the most loyal residents accept the fact that voice will not save their city. Additionally, the unconscious “loyal” residents will finally notice the decline. Both groups of people will then exit the city in order to reside somewhere else. This leads to a larger drop in population and is shown in the diagram as a movement from Pb to Pc.

This pattern is repeated as a city recovers. An initial quality improvement from Q3 to Q2 induces a relatively small amount of migration back to the city (Pc to Pd), since most people will need confirmation that the city has actually started down a path of sustainable improvement before they will return. Further improvement from Q2 to Q1 will generate a larger increase in population, represented by a movement from point D to point A (Pd to Pa).

What is interesting about this theoretical analysis is that it generates two different populations for the same level of quality. At quality Q2 the city’s population will be relatively large (Pb) if the city is declining in quality and it will be relatively small (point Pd) if the city’s quality is improving. This means that a declining city such as Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. will have to make substantial quality improvements before they will see a large influx of people. So even if a city such as Cleveland returns to its 1970 level of relative quality we shouldn’t expect a drastic increase in population, as this model predicts that its population will be less than its actual 1970 population since it will be on the returning curve (CDA) rather than the exiting curve (ABC).

A city that is consistently losing population over a long period of time faces a variety of problems such as increased crime, declining housing values, a decline in the quality of public services, and higher costs in the provision of public services. Fixing these problems is often expensive and this model implies that the costs required for increasing quality from Q1 to Q2 will not result in substantial population gain, which means per capita costs to taxpayers are unlikely to decline by much and may even increase as the city begins to improve. This model predicts that revitalizing America’s struggling cities is a more difficult task than many politicians and policy makers are acknowledging.

Are state lotteries good sources of revenue?

By Olivia Gonzalez and Adam A. Millsap

With all the hype about the Powerball jackpot, we decided to look at the benefits and costs of state lotteries from the taxpayer’s perspective. The excitement around yesterday’s drawing is for good reason, with the jackpot reaching $1.5 billion – the largest thus far. But most taxpayers will never benefit from the actual prize money, with odds of winning as low as one in 292.2 million for the jackpot. So if few people will ever hit it big, there must be other benefits for taxpayers to justify the implementation of lotteries, right?

Of the 43 states that implement lotteries, the majority of lottery revenues – about 58% on average – go to awarding prizes. A relatively small proportion (7%) is used to pay for administration costs, such as salaries of government workers and advertising. The remaining category, and the primary purpose of implementing state lotteries, is revenue for government services. On average, about one third of state lottery revenues is directed to state funds for this purpose. The chart below displays the state-level breakdown of lottery revenue for the most recent year that data are available (2013).

lottery sales breakdown

It is surprising that such a small portion of state lottery sales actually make it to state funds, especially considering how much politicians advertise the benefits of state lotteries. A handful of states direct more than 50% of lottery revenues towards state funds: Rhode Island, Delaware, West Virginia, Oregon, and South Dakota. The other 38 states allocate significantly less with Arkansas and Massachusetts contributing the smallest percentage, only 21%.

Many states direct their lottery revenues towards education programs. The largest lottery system, New York’s, usually directs about 30% of their lottery sales to this area. Similarly, Florida’s lottery system transferred about one third of their funds, totaling $1.50 billion, to their Educational Enhancement Trust Fund (EETF) in 2013.

The data presented here are from 2013, so it will be interesting to see how the recent Powerball jackpot revenues will affect lottery revenues more broadly in the future, especially since the Multi-State Lottery Association reduced the odds of winning in October of 2015 in the hope of boosting revenues. State officials argue that reducing the chances of winning allows the prize to grow larger, which increases the demand for tickets and revenue.

The revenue-generating function of state lotteries makes them implicit taxes. The portion of revenue generated from a state lottery that is not used to operate the lottery is just like tax revenue generated from a regular sales or excise tax. So even if lotteries are effective at raising revenue, are they effective tax policy?

Effective tax policy should take into account the tax’s ability to generate revenue as well as its efficiency, equity, transparency, and collectability. Research shows that state lotteries fall short in most of these categories.

The practice of dedicating portions of tax revenue to specific expenditure categories, also known as earmarking, can be detrimental to state budgets. Research that looks specifically at the earmarking of lottery revenues finds that educational expenditures remain unaffected, and sometimes even decline, following the implementation of a state lottery.

This result is due to how earmarking changes the incentives facing politicians. A 1999 study compares the results of lottery revenues directed specifically to fund education with revenues going to a state’s general fund. Patrick Pierce, one of the co-authors, explains that when funds are earmarked for education they go to the intended program but, “instead of adding to the funds for those programs, legislators factor in the lottery revenue and allocate less government money to the program budgets.”

Earmarking also affects total government expenditures, even though from a theoretical perspective it should have little effect since one source of funding is just as good as another. Nevertheless, many empirical studies find the opposite. Mercatus research corroborates this by demonstrating that earmarking tends to result in an increase in total government spending while having little effect on the program expenditures to which the funds are tied. This raises serious transparency concerns because it obscures increases in total government spending that voters may not want.

Last but not least, about four decades of studies have examined lottery tax equity and the majority of them find that lottery sales disproportionately draw from lower-income groups, making them regressive taxes. This only adds to the aforementioned concerns about the transparency, collectability, and revenue raising capabilities of lottery taxes.

Perhaps the effectiveness of lottery taxes can be best summed up by the authors of a 1993 study who wrote that “lotteries as a source of funding are neither efficient nor equitable substitutes for more traditional tax sources.”

Although at least three people walked away with millions of dollars yesterday, many taxpayers are not getting any benefits from their state’s lottery system.

The cost disease and the privatization of government services

Many US municipalities are facing budget problems (see here, here, and here). The real cost of providing traditional public services like police, fire protection, and education is increasing, often at a rate that exceeds revenue growth. The graph below shows the real per-capita expenditure increase in five US cities from 1951 to 2006. (Data are from the census file IndFin_1967-2012.zip and are adjusted for inflation using the US GDP chained price index.)

real per cap spend

In 1951 none of the cities were spending more than $1,000 per person. In 2006 every city was spending well over that amount, with Buffalo spending almost $5,000 per person. Even Fresno, which had the smallest increase, increased per capita spending from $480 to $1,461 – an increase of 204%. Expenditure growth that exceeds revenue growth leads to budget deficits and can eventually result in cuts in services. Economist William Baumol attributes city spending growth to what is known as the “cost disease”.

In his 1967 paper, Baumol argues that municipalities will face rising costs of providing “public” goods and services over time as the relative productivity of labor declines in the industries controlled by local governments versus those of the private sector. As labor in the private sector becomes more productive over time due to increases in capital, wages will increase. Goods and services traditionally supplied by local governments such as police, fire protection, and education have not experienced similar increases in capital or productivity. K-12 education is a particularly good example of stagnation – a teacher from the 1950s would not confront much of a learning curve if they had to teach in a 21st century classroom. However, in order to attract competent and productive teachers, for example, local governments must increase wages to levels that are competitive with the wages that teachers could earn in the private sector. When this occurs, teacher’s wages increase even though their productivity does not. As a result, cities end up paying more money for the same amount of work. Baumol sums up the effect:

“The bulk of municipal services is, in fact, of this general stamp [non-progressive] and our model tells us clearly what can be expected as a result…inexorably and cumulatively, whether or not there is inflation, administrative mismanagement or malfeasance, municipal budgets will almost certainly continue to mount in the future, just as they have been doing in the past. This is a trend for which no man and no group should be blamed, for there is nothing than can be done to stop it.” (Baumol, 1967 p.423)

But is there really nothing than can be done to cure the cost disease? Baumol himself later acknowledged that innovation may yet occur in the relatively stagnant sectors of the economy such as education:

“…an activity which is, say, relatively stagnant need not stay so forever. It may be replaced by a more progressive substitute, or it may undergo an outburst of innovation previous thought very unlikely.” (Baumol et al. 1985, p.807).

The cure for the cost disease is that the stagnant, increasing-cost sectors need to undergo “an outburst of innovation”. But this raises the question; what has prevented this innovation from occurring thus far?

One thing that Baumol’s story ignores is public choice. Specifically, is the lack of labor-augmenting technology in the public-sector industries a characteristic of the public sector? The primary public sector industries have high rates of unionization and the primary goal of a labor union is to protect its dues-paying members. The chart below provides the union affiliation of workers for several occupations in 2013 and 2014.

union membership chart

In 2014, the protective service occupations and education, training, and library occupations, e.g. police officers and teachers, had relatively high union membership rates of 35%. Conversely, other high-skilled occupations such as management, computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations, and sales and office occupations had relatively low rates, ranging from 4.2% to 6.5% in 2014. Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations were in the middle at 14.6%, down from 16.1% in 2013.

The bottom part of the table shows the union membership rate of the public sector in general and of each level of government: federal, state, and local. The highest rate of unionization was at the local level, where approximately 42% of workers were members of a union in 2014, up from 41% in 2013. This is about 14 percentage points higher than the federal level and 12 percentage points higher than the state level. The union membership rate of the private sector in 2014 was only 6.6%.

In addition to the apathetic and sometimes hostile view unions have towards technological advancement and competition, union membership is also associated with higher wages, particularly at the local-government level. Economists Maury Gittleman and Brooks Piece of the Bureau of Labor statistics found that local-government workers have compensation costs 10 – 19% larger than similar private sector workers.

The table below shows the median weekly earnings in 2013 and 2014 for workers in the two most heavily unionized occupational categories; education, training, and library occupations and protective service occupations. In both occupation groups there is a substantial difference between the union and non-union weekly earnings. From the taxpayer’s perspective, higher earnings mean higher costs.

union median wage chart

There needs to be an incentive to expend resources in labor-saving technology for it to occur and it is not clear that this incentive exists in the public sector. In the public sector, taxpayers ultimately pay for the services they receive but these services are provided by an agent – the local politician(s) – who is expected to act on the taxpayer’s behalf when it comes to spending tax dollars. But in the public sector the agent/politician is accountable to both his employees and the general taxpayer since both groups vote on his performance. The general taxpayer wants the politician to cut costs and invest in labor-augmenting technology while the public-employee taxpayer wants to keep his job and earn more income. Since the public-employee unions are well organized compared to the general taxpayers it is easier for them to lobby their politicians/bosses in order to get their desired outcome, which ultimately means higher costs for the general taxpayer.

If Baumol’s cost disease is the primary factor responsible for the increasing cost of municipal government then there is not an easy remedy in the current environment. If the policing, firefighting, and education industries are unreceptive to labor-augmenting technology due to their high levels of unionization and near-monopoly status, one potential way to cure municipalities of the cost disease is privatization. In their 1996 paper, The Cost Disease and Government Growth: Qualifications to Baumol, economists J. Ferris and Edwin West state “Privatization could lead to significant changes in the structure of supply that result in “genuine” reductions in real costs” (p. 48).

Schools, police, and fire services are not true public goods and thus economic efficiency does not dictate that they are provided by a government entity. Schools in particular have been successfully built and operated by private funds for thousands of years. While there are fewer modern examples of privately operated police and fire departments, in theory both could be successfully privatized and historically fire departments were, though not always with great success. However, the failures of past private fire departments in places like New York City in the 19th century appear to be largely due to political corruption, an increase in political patronage, poorly designed incentives, and the failure of the rule of law rather than an inherent flaw in privatization. And today, many volunteer fire departments still exist. In 2013 69% of all firefighters were volunteers and 66% of all fire departments were all-volunteer.

The near-monopoly status of government provided education in many places and the actual monopoly of government provided police and fire protection makes these industries less susceptible to innovation. The government providers face little to no competition from private-sector alternatives, they are highly unionized and thus have little incentive to invest in labor-saving technology, and the importance of their output along with the aforementioned lack of competition allows them to pass cost increases on to taxpayers.

Market competition, limited union membership, and the profit-incentive are features of the private sector that are lacking in the public sector. Together these features encourage the use of labor-augmenting technology, which ultimately lowers costs and frees up resources, most notably labor, that can then be used on producing other goods and services. The higher productivity and lower costs that result from investments in productive capital also free up consumer dollars that can then be used to purchase additional goods and services from other industries.

Privatization of basic city services may be a little unnerving to some people, but ultimately it may be the only way to significantly bring down costs without cutting services. There are over 19,000 municipal governments in the US, which means there are over 19,000 groups of citizens that are capable of looking for new and innovative ways to provide the goods and services they rely on. In the private sector entrepreneurs continue to invent new things and find ways to make old things better and cheaper. I believe that if we allow entrepreneurs to apply their creativity to the public sector we will get similar outcomes.

State government spending hits new heights

There is a large literature in macroeconomics that examines the extent to which federal spending “crowds out” investment in the private sector. Basic theory and common sense lead to the conclusion that government spending must replace some private sector spending. After all, dollars are scarce – if the government taxes Paul and uses his money to build a road Paul necessarily has less money to invest in his landscaping business. In theory government spending on public goods like roads could be a net gain. This would occur if the additional value produced by spending one more dollar on roads was greater than the additional value produced by investing one more dollar in Paul’s landscaping business. But even in this scenario, Paul himself may be worse off – he’s one dollar poorer and he may not use the new road – and there is still a dead-weight loss due to the tax.

In reality, the federal government does a lot more than build roads, especially productive ones. In 2014, only 1.9% of federal income tax revenue was spent on transportation. And most of the other stuff that the government does is way less productive, like shuffling money around via entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and investing in businesses that later go bankrupt like Solyndra. So while it is possible that a dollar spent by the government is more productive than a dollar spent by a guy like Paul, in a country with America’s spending habits it’s unlikely to be the case.

The same crowding out that occurs at the federal level can occur at the state level. In fact, in many states state spending as a percentage of gross state product (GSP) exceeds federal spending as a percentage of GDP. The graph below shows state spending as a percentage of GSP for all 50 states and Washington D.C. in 1970, 1990, and 2012 (data). The red, dashed line is federal spending as a percentage of GDP in 2012 (21.9%).

state spending gsp graph

As shown in the graph, nearly every state increased their spending relative to GSP from 1970 – 2012 (triangles are above the X’s). Only one state, South Dakota, had lower spending relative to GSP in 2012 than in 1970. In 2012, 15 of the 50 states spent more as a percentage of GSP than the federal government spent as a percentage of GDP (states where the triangle is above the red, dashed line). In 1990 only two states, Arizona and Montana, spent at that level.

It used to be the case that state and local spending was primarily focused on classic government services like roads, water/sewer systems, police officers, firemen, and K-12 education. But state spending is increasingly looking similar to federal spending. Redistributive public welfare expenditures and pension expenditures have increased substantially since 1992. As an example, the tables below provide a breakdown of some key spending areas for two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in 1992 and 2012 (1992 data here, 2012 data here). The dollar per capita amounts are adjusted for inflation and are in 2009 dollars.

ohio spending table

penn spending table

As the tables show, spending on public welfare, hospitals, and health increased by 120% in Ohio and 86% in Pennsylvania from 1992 to 2012. Pension expenditures increased by 83% and 125% respectively. And contrary to what many politicians and media types say, funding for higher education – the large majority of state education spending is on higher education – increased dramatically during this time period; up 250% in Ohio and 199% in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, funding for highways – the classic public good that politicians everywhere insist wouldn’t exist without them – has increased by a much smaller amount in both states.

The state spending increases of the recent past are being driven in large part by public welfare programs that redistribute money, pensions for government employees, and higher education. While one could argue that higher education spending is a productive public investment (Milton Friedman didn’t think so and I agree) it is hard to make a case that public welfare and pension payments are good investments. This alone doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t provide those things. Other factors like equity and economic security might be more important to some people than economic productivity. But this does make it unlikely that the marginal dollar spent by a state government today is as economically productive as that dollar spent in the private sector. Like federal spending, state spending is likely crowding out productive private investment, which will ultimately lower output and economic growth in the long run.

Grants to Puerto Rico haven’t helped much

Greece’s monetary and fiscal issues have overshadowed a similar situation right in America’s own back yard: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor recently called the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt “unpayable” and this has made Puerto Rico’s bondholders more nervous than they already were. Puerto Rico’s bonds were previously downgraded to junk by the credit rating agencies and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Puerto Rico’s ability to honor its obligations to both bond holders and its own workers, as the commonwealth’s pension system is drastically underfunded.   A major default would likely impact residents of the mainland U.S., since according to Morningstar most of the debt is owned by U.S. mutual funds, hedge funds, and mainland Americans.

So how did Puerto Rico get into this situation? Like many other places, including Greece and several U.S. cities, the government of Puerto Rico routinely spent more than it collected in revenue and then borrowed to fill the gap as shown in the graph below from Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget. Over a recent 13 year period (2000 – 2012) Puerto Rico ran a deficit each year and accrued $23 billion in debt.

Puerto rico govt spending

Puerto Rico has a lot in common with many struggling cities in the U.S. that followed a similar fiscal path, such as a high unemployment rate of 12.4%, a shrinking labor force, stagnant or declining median household income, population flight, and falling house prices. Only 46.1% of the population 16 and over was in the labor force in 2012 (compared to an average of nearly 64% in the US in 2012) and the population declined by 4.8% from 2010 to 2014. It is difficult to raise enough revenue to fund basic government services when less than half the population is employed and the most able-bodied workers are leaving the country.

Like other U.S. cities and states, Puerto Rico receives intergovernmental grants from the federal government. As I have explained before, these grants reduce the incentives for a local government to get its fiscal house in order and misallocate resources from relatively responsible, growing areas to less responsible, shrinking areas. As an example, since 1975 Puerto Rico has received nearly $2.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, has received over $900 million. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBGs awarded to the major cities of Puerto Rico from 1975 – 2014.

Total CDBGs Puerto Rico

As shown in the graph San Juan has received the bulk of the grant dollars. The graph below shows the amount by year for various years between 1980 and 2014 for San Juan and Puerto Rico as a whole plotted on the left vertical axis (bar graphs). On the right vertical axis is the amount of CDBG dollars per capita (line graphs). San Juan is in orange and Puerto Rico is in blue.

CDBGs per capita, yr Puerto Rico

San Juan has consistently received more dollars per capita than the other areas of Puerto Rico. Both total dollars and dollars per capita have been declining since 1980, which is when the CDBG program was near its peak funding level. As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, San Juan received an additional $2.8 million dollars and Puerto Rico as a country received another $5.9 million on top of the $32 million already provided by the program (not shown on the graph).

It’s hard to look at all of this redistribution and not consider whether it did any good. After all, $2.7 billion later Puerto Rico’s economy is struggling and their fiscal situation looks grim. Grant dollars from programs like the CDBG program consistently fail to make a lasting impact on the recipient’s economy. There are structural problems holding Puerto Rico’s economy back, such as the Jones Act, which increases the costs of goods on the island by restricting intra-U.S.-shipping to U.S. ships, and the enforcement of the U.S. minimum wage, which is a significant cost to employers in a place where the median wage is much lower than on the mainland. Intergovernmental grants and transfers do nothing to solve these underlying structural problems. But despite this reality, millions of dollars are spent every year with no lasting benefit.

An Unbalanced Budget: Fiscal Pollution

Yesterday I appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to talk about a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The other witnesses were Former Governor and Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, Former CBO Director and current president of the American Action Forum, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Professor Philip Joyce of the University of Maryland.

I began by pointing out the enormity of the problem: CBO projects that absent policy change, the nation’s debt will be 90 percent of GDP in just seven years. This is an important figure because research suggests that when national debt levels get much above this point, their growth rates tend to slow. In the median case, they slow by 1 percentage point and in the mean case, their growth rates are cut in half.

This may not sound like much, but to put it in perspective, I used the following chart.

What would current national income be if—in 1975—the U.S. had accumulated the sort of debt that we are about to accumulate and the nation’s growth rate had slowed by 1 percentage point? This is indicated by the dashed line in the middle. Today’s GDP would be about 1/3rd smaller than it actually is. And what would national income be if we had grown at half our actual pace? This is indicated in the bottom line. Today’s income would be 45 percent smaller than it actually is. To get a feel for this magnitude, notice the blip in the top right corner of the actual GDP line. That is the Great Recession that began in 2008. As I told the Judiciary Committee:

The most calamitous economic contraction in decades pales in comparison to the lost income associated with persistently anemic economic growth from too much debt.

In my view, the nation’s fiscal problems owe much to the incentives that politicians face. Around 1:27:45 I make this point:

The basic problem here is one of externalities. This is a problem that is familiar to environmental economists.  If a factory…in the process
of making a product for consumers, is allowed to bilge smoke into the air, that’s an externality. And they will make too much of the product unless it is internalized. So here, what’s happening is that this current generation is allowed to externalize the costs of government onto the next generation….The costs of reform, the costs of avoiding this kind of economic contraction that we are staring at will be borne by people like me, the median voter. But the costs of the status quo will be borne by my daughter. She cannot vote. Until we can internalize that externality, I think we are going to continue to make the wrong choice because none of you have the incentive to make the right choice. It’s not your fault; you are all good people, you are servants of the public and you are listening to what your constituents and your median voters are saying. But the incentives that they offer you are not right.

A balanced budget amendment, by internalizing this externality, would correct these misaligned incentives. Simply put, it would “make each generation that benefits from government services pay for the costs of producing them.”

The video is here (my testimony begins at 54:30). Here is my written statement.

Unfortunately, despite the ardent wishes of my 7th grade civics teacher, these sorts of hearings are not, primarily, about weighing the evidence and changing minds. Instead, they have much more to do with scoring political points and solidifying already-hardened positions. Nevertheless, I found that most of the Congress-people who disagreed with me were polite. And I hope that this leads to opportunities for more fruitful exchanges down the line.

Real Spending Per Person: White House vs. Paul Ryan

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending plan has been released. Both sides are going to characterize it as a $6.2 trillion dollar cut in federal spending. Of course, in Washington a “cut” is rarely a cut. Usually, when politicians speak of cuts, they mean cuts in reference to what some other politician wants to spend. In this case, the chairman actually wants 2021 spending to be about $1 trillion greater than 2011 spending. But since the President wants 2021 spending to be nearly $2 trillion greater and since the annual differences between the two plans add up to about $6.2 trillion over ten years, Ryan’s plan will be called a cut.

But what about inflation? And what about population growth?

Since inflation erodes the value of dollars over time and since population growth spreads those dollars over an ever-expanding group of people, some will argue that we must increase spending just to maintain the same level of government services.

I would note that in the non-political world, we expect technological improvements and efficiency gains to make things cheaper over time (witness computing power, smart phones, and plasma TVs–all of which have gotten cheaper in real terms over time). But let us make the reasonable assumption that government is incapable of efficiency gains. In this case, we should examine “real, per capita spending.” That is, after controlling for inflation and population growth, how much more or less will the federal government be spending per man, woman, and child?

The chart below shows real per capita spending under the President’s plan (red) and under the Congressman’s plan (blue). By 2020 (I don’t have inflation projections out to 2021), the president wants to spend $1,012 more per person in real terms. In contrast, the Chairman wants to spend $470 less per person. To put this another way, the President would increase real per capita spending by about 8% while the Chairman would decrease it by about 4%.

Just about everyone agrees that fiscal calamity awaits inaction. And numerous studies suggest that spending cuts are far more effective at addressing fiscal problems than revenue increases. In this context, is a 4% cut in spending really–as Ezra Klein characterizes it–“completely, almost gleefully, unacceptable“?

Purchasing Preference Laws: Who Wins and Who Loses?

Like many states, New Mexico has what is known as a “government purchasing preference law.” This is a statute that requires the state to give preference to local businesses when it purchases products and services on the market.

Many businesses in New Mexico object to the law because they feel it isn’t as strong as the laws of other states. Writing in the Albuquerque Journal (I can’t seem to find a link) business leaders Sherman McCorkle and Dale Dekker argue:

The current law has not achieved its intended purpose. Out-of-state companies are   able to easily qualify as “resident businesses” and reap the rewards of this status.

Nevertheless, local businesses are penalized when they attempt to do business in other states with more stringent residency requirements. According to McCorkle and Dekker:

Basically local companies are hit by a double whammy — they aren’t able to truly benefit from the New Mexico preference law yet they’re penalized in other states because New Mexico has a preference law.

In an attempt to “level the playing field” the state’s business and organized labor communities have met with State Senator Tim Keller to draft an updated government purchasing preference law that is modeled after other states’ laws.

According to McCorkle and Dekker, “When public money is spent in-state all New Mexicans benefit.”

Really? All New Mexicans? Of course, New Mexico businesses benefit from a leg-up against the competition. (At least in the short run; one could argue that over the long-run businesses that are sheltered from the rigors of competition eventually stagnate).

But what about the customers? Do New Mexico taxpayers really benefit when they have to pay extra for government services?

The data suggest otherwise. In an article in the journal Public Choice, economists Steven Craig and Joel Sailors studied the impact of purchasing preference laws on state expenditures. They found that states with such laws spend about 3 percent more per capita. Moreover, they found that the tax base does not rise enough to pay for the extra spending and that revenue must be raised as well. 

As far as economic theory is concerned, purchasing preference laws make little sense. The aggregate costs to taxpayers/consumers outweigh the aggregate benefits to local businesses. And when other states have similar laws, local monopolies dominate everywhere. In addition, there tend to be higher production costs when firms are sheltered from competition as well as rent-seeking costs when firms sink resources into lobbying for such protection. This was bad economics during the mercantilist era and it is bad economics today.

A real step toward reform would be a strong interstate agreement against all purchasing preference laws.

Unsustainable Spending Growth Hurts

Local governments cut about 76,000 jobs last month and over 143,000 in the last three months. As David Leonhardt explains:

Since the Labor Department began keeping records in the 1950s, the only other time that the cuts were so steep was in the harsh 1981-2 recession.

Meanwhile, David Vock over at Stateline.org has an eye-opening piece on the ways states have foisted their fiscal problems on local governments and private contractors:

Anthony Picente decided he’d had enough. The state of New York had fallen $34 million behind on payments to Oneida County, the Upstate county around Utica where Picente is the top elected official. Picente was counting on the money to reimburse the county for services it provides that are in high demand these days: job training, food stamps and other key pieces of the social safety net.

By July, Picente hadn’t seen a check from Albany in months.

The county passed its troubles along to vendors:

… To deal with its own cash crunch, Oneida County started doing to its contractors what the state was doing to the county: skipping payments. At one point, the county owed a local agency for youth roughly $800,000.

Austerity is painful. When people come to count on services and jobs, they suffer when the rug is pulled out from under them.

But it is not reasonable (and ultimately more painful) to bury one’s head in the sand and pretend that state and local government spending can continue to go on at its current pace. As I have noted before, state and local governments have grown at about twice the pace of the private sector for decades:

Since these governments depend almost entirely on the private sector for their resources (they only have what they can tax or borrow from the private sector, plus a little more that they charge in fees), this is simply not sustainable.

In fact, I view the state and local government sector as not unlike the finance or housing sectors of a few years back: unsustainably large and systemically risky. 

And as the current fiscal crunch shows, it isn’t just the taxpayer that is getting hurt: state and local workers, private contractors and those who have come to depend on government services are all feeling the squeeze. In my view, the real shame is that unrealistic and unsustainable promises were made to these people. Public sector unions and advocates for the poor should be the first to object to unsustainable growth in state and local spending. 

In a few days I plan to post on the reasons why state and local governments have experienced such excessive growth.