Tag Archives: local governments

The use of locally-imposed selective taxes to fund public pension liabilities

Many eyes are on Kentucky policymakers as they grapple with finding a solution to their $40 billion state-reported unfunded public pension liability. As talks of a potential pension bill surface, various proposals have been made by legislators, but very few have gained traction. One such proposal stands out from the rest. A proposal that has since been shut down suggested imposing selective taxes on tobacco, prescription opiates, and outsourced labor to generate revenue to direct towards paying down the state’s pension debt. Despite its short-lived tenure, this selective tax proposal reflects a recent trend in pension funding reform; a trend that policymakers should be wary of. Implementing new taxes on select goods or services may seem like a good idea as it could, in theory, potentially raise additional revenues, but experience at the local level suggests otherwise.

In chapter 12 of a new Mercatus book on sin taxes, NYU professor Thad Calabrese examines the practice of locally-imposed selective taxes that are used to fund public pension liabilities and doesn’t find much evidence to support their continued usage.

Selective taxes are sales taxes that target specific goods and are also known as ‘sin taxes’ because of their popular usage in taxing less healthy goods such as cigarettes, junk food, or alcohol. In the examples that Calabrese examines, selective taxes are used to target insurance premiums as revenue sources for pensions.

Only a select few states have begun this practice – including Illinois, Pennsylvania, as well as municipalities in West Virginia and Missouri – but it may become more popular if courts begin to restrict the way in which current pension benefits can be modified. Once benefits are taken off the table as an avenue for reform, like in Illinois, policymakers will feel more pressure to find new revenue sources.

The proposal in Kentucky may seem appealing to policymakers, especially because of its potential to raise $600 million a year, but this estimate overlooks the unintended effects that such new taxes could facilitate. Thankfully, the proposal did not go through, but I think some time should be spent looking at what similar proposals have looked like at the local level, so that other states do not get tempted pick up where Kentucky left off.

Calabrese draws on the experiences in Pennsylvania and Illinois to examine how these taxes have operated, how the decoupling of setting and financing employee benefits tends to lead to these taxes, and how the use of these taxes is associated with significantly underfunded pension systems. Below I highlight Pennsylvania’s experience and caution against further usage of this mechanism for pension funding.

How it works (or doesn’t)

In 1895, Pennsylvania implemented a 2 percent tax on out-of-state fire and casualty insurance companies’ premiums on in-state property and then earmarked this for distribution to local governments to pay for pensions. Act 205 of 1984 replaced the original act in which the state of Pennsylvania allocated pension aid based on where the insured property was located and instead the new allocation was based on the number of public employees in a locality.

Calabrese explains how the funds were distributed:

“Each public employee was considered a ‘unit,’ and uniformed employees (such as police and fire) each represented two units. The pool of insurance tax revenue collected by the state was then divided by the sum of municipal units to arrive at a unit value. This distribution could subsidize local governments’ pension expenditures up to 100 percent of the annual cost. In 1985, this tax generated $62.3 million in revenues; as a result, each unit value was worth $1,146 – meaning that local governments received $1,146 for pension funding for each public employee and an additional $1,146 for pension funding for each uniformed public employee. Importantly, 75 percent of municipalities received enough funding from this revenue in 1985 to fully offset their pension costs.”

The new mechanism raised more funds, but it also unexpectedly raised costs. If a municipality had to contribute less than the $1,146 annually for a regular employee or $2,292 for a uniformed employee, for example, the municipality was essentially incentivized to increase benefits to public employees up to this limit, because local public employees would receive increased benefits at no direct budgetary cost to the municipality.

“…the tax likely increased insurance costs for residents and businesses (and then only a small fraction of the cost), but not directly for the government employer. Further, this system privileged benefits relative to other compensation, because these payments (borne at least statutorily by out-of-state companies) could only be used for financing pensions and not other forms of compensation.”

A tax originally implemented to fund pension costs statewide resulted in a system that encouraged more generous benefits.

Despite increased subsidies from the state, only 38 percent of municipalities received sufficient allocated funds from the pool to fully offset the costs of pensions. This was because annual pension contributions were growing at a faster rate than the rate at which the subsidy from the state insurance tax was growing.

To highlight a city with severely distressed pension plans, Philadelphia continued to struggle even following the implementation of the state insurance tax. The police pension plan, nonuniformed plan, and firefighter pension plan were all only 49, 47, and 45 percent funded, respectively. In 2009, the City Council passed a temporary 1 percentage point increase in their sales tax and when the temporary rate was renewed in 2014, any revenue in excess of $120 million was dedicated to the city’s pension plans. Additionally, the state permitted the city to pass a $2 per pack cigarette tax to fund a planned budget deficit for the school system; likely because its income tax capacity was largely exhausted.

Philadelphia’s new taxes technically generated new revenues, but they did little to improve the funding of the city’s pension plans.

The selective taxes implemented to fund pension liabilities in Pennsylvania were effectively a Band-Aid that was two small for the state’s pension funding problem, which in turn required the addition of more, insufficient pension Band-Aids. It merely created a public financing system that encouraged pension benefit growth which led to the passage of additional laws requiring certain pension funding levels. And when these funding levels were not met, even more laws were passed that provided temporary pension funding relief, which further grew liabilities for distressed municipalities.

Act 44 became law in 1993 and provided plan sponsors pension funding relief, but primarily by allowing sponsors to alter actuarial assumptions and thereby reduce required pension contributions. Another law delayed funding by manipulating how the required contribution was calculated, rather than providing any permanent fix.

Moving forward

Selective taxes for the purpose of funding pensions are still a relatively rare practice, but as pension liabilities grow and the landscape of reform options changes, it may become increasingly attractive to policymakers. As Calabrese has demonstrated in his book chapter, however, we should be wary of this avenue as it may only encourage the growth of pension liabilities without addressing the problem in any meaningful way. Reforming the structure of the pension plan or the level of benefits provided to current or future employees would provide the most long-term solution.

A solution with the long-term in mind and that doesn’t involve touching current beneficiaries includes moving future workers to defined contribution plans; plans that are better suited to keeping costs contained. The ballooning costs aren’t stemming solely from overly generous plan benefits, but more seriously are the result of their poor management and incentives for funding, only exacerbated by poor accounting practices. The problem is certainly complicated and moving towards the use of defined contribution plans wouldn’t eliminate all issues, but it would at least set governments on a more sustainable path.

At the very least, policymakers interested in long-term solutions should be cautioned against using selective taxes to fund pensions.

Government Spending and Economic Growth in Nebraska since 1997

Mercatus recently released a study that examines Nebraska’s budget, budgetary rules and economy. As the study points out, Nebraska, like many other states, consistently faces budgeting problems. State officials are confronted by a variety of competing interests looking for more state funding—schools, health services and public pensions to name a few—and attempts to placate each of them often leave officials scrambling to avoid budget shortfalls in the short term.

Money spent by state and local governments is collected from taxpayers who earn money in the labor market and through investments. The money earned by taxpayers is the result of producing goods and services that people want and the total is essentially captured in a state’s Gross Domestic Product (GSP).

State GSP is a good measure of the amount of money available for a state to tax, and if state and local government spending is growing faster than GSP, state and local governments will be controlling a larger and larger portion of their state’s output over time. This is unsustainable in the long run, and in the short run more state and local government spending can reduce the dynamism of a state’s economy as resources are taken from risk-taking entrepreneurs in the private sector and given to government bureaucrats.

The charts below use data from the BEA to depict the growth of state and local government spending and private industry GSP in Nebraska (click on charts to enlarge). The first shows the annual growth rates in private industry GSP and state and local government GSP from 1997 to 2014. The data is adjusted for inflation (2009 dollars) and the year depicted is the ending year (e.g. 1998 is growth from 1997 – 1998).

NE GSP annual growth rates 1997-14

In Nebraska, real private industry GSP growth has been positive every year except for 2012. There is some volatility consistent with the business cycles over this time period, but Nebraska’s economy has regularly grown over this period.

On the other hand, state and local GSP growth was negative 10 of the 17 years depicted. It grew rapidly during recession periods (2000 – 2002 and 2009 – 2010), but it appears that state and local officials were somewhat successful in reducing spending once economic conditions improved.

The next chart shows how much private industry and state and local GSP grew over the entire period for both Nebraska and the U.S. as a whole. The 1997 value of each category is used as the base year and the yearly ratio is plotted in the figure. The data is adjusted for inflation (2009 dollars).

NE, US GSP growth since 1997

In 2014, Nebraska’s private industry GSP (red line) was nearly 1.6 times larger than its value in 1997. On the other hand, state and local spending (light red line) was only about 1.1 times larger. Nebraska’s private industry GSP grew more than the country’s as a whole over this period (57% vs 46%) while its state and local government spending grew less (11% vs. 15%).

State and local government spending in Nebraska spiked from 2009 to 2010 but has come down slightly since then. Meanwhile, the state’s private sector has experienced relatively strong growth since 2009 compared to the country as a whole, though it was lagging the country prior to the recession.

Compared to the country overall, Nebraska’s private sector economy has been doing well since 2008 and state and local spending, while growing, appears to be largely under control. If you would like to learn more about Nebraska’s economy and the policies responsible for the information presented here, I encourage you to read Governing Nebraska’s Fiscal Commons: Addressing the Budgetary Squeeze, by Creighton University Professor Michael Thomas.

Why the lack of labor mobility in the U.S. is a problem and how we can fix it

Many researchers have found evidence that mobility in the U.S. is declining. More specifically, it doesn’t appear that people move from places with weaker economies to places with stronger economies as consistently as they did in the past. Two sets of figures from a paper by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag succinctly show this decline over time.

The first, shown below, has log income per capita by state on the x-axis for two different years, 1940 (left) and 1990 (right). On the vertical axis of each graph is the annual population growth rate by state for two periods, 1940 – 1960 (left) and 1990 – 2010 (right).

directed migration ganong, shoag

In the 1940 – 1960 period, the graph depicts a strong positive relationship: States with higher per capita incomes in 1940 experienced more population growth over the next 20 years than states with lower per capita incomes. This relationship disappears and actually reverses in the 1990 – 2010 period: States with higher per capita incomes actually grew slower on average. So in general people became less likely to move to states with higher incomes between the middle and end of the 20th century. Other researchers have also found that people are not moving to areas with better economies.

This had an effect on income convergence, as shown in the next set of figures. In the 1940 – 1960 period (left), states with higher per capita incomes experienced less income growth than states with lower per capita incomes, as shown by the negative relationship. This negative relationship existed in the 1990 – 2010 period as well, but it was much weaker.

income convergence ganong, shoag

We would expect income convergence when workers leave low income states for high income states, since that increases the labor supply in high-income states and pushes down wages. Meanwhile, the labor supply decreases in low-income states which increases wages. Overall, this leads to per capita incomes converging across states.

Why labor mobility matters

As law professor David Schleicher points out in a recent paper, the current lack of labor mobility can reduce the ability of the federal government to manage the U.S. economy. In the U.S. we have a common currency—every state uses the U.S. dollar. This means that if a state is hit by an economic shock, e.g. low energy prices harm Texas, Alaska and North Dakota but help other states, that state’s currency cannot adjust to cushion the blow.

For example, if the UK goes into a recession, the Bank of England can print more money so that the pound will depreciate relative to other currencies, making goods produced in the UK relatively cheap. This will decrease the UK’s imports and increase economic activity and exports, which will help it emerge from the recession. If the U.S. as a whole suffered a negative economic shock, a similar process would take place.

However, within a country this adjustment mechanism is unavailable: Texas can’t devalue its dollar relative to Ohio’s dollar. There is no within-country monetary policy that can help particular states or regions. Instead, the movement of capital and labor from weak areas to strong areas is the primary mechanism available for restoring full employment within the U.S. If capital and labor mobility are low it will take longer for the U.S. to recover from area-specific negative economic shocks.

State or area-specific economic shocks are more likely in large countries like the U.S. that have very diverse local economies. This makes labor and capital mobility more important in the U.S. than in smaller, less economically diverse countries such as Denmark or Switzerland, since those countries are less susceptible to area-specific economic shocks.

Why labor mobility is low

There is some consensus about policies that can increase labor mobility. Many people, including former President Barack Obama, my colleagues at the Mercatus Center and others, have pointed out that state occupational licensing makes it harder for workers in licensed professions to move across state borders. There is similar agreement that land-use regulations increase housing prices which makes it harder for people to move to areas with the strongest economies.

Reducing occupational licensing and land-use regulations would increase labor mobility, but actually doing these things is not easy. Occupational licensing and land-use regulations are controlled at the state and local level, so currently there is little that the federal government can do.

Moreover, as Mr. Schleicher points out in his paper, state and local governments created these regulations for a reason and it’s not clear that they have any incentive to change them. Like all politicians, state and local ones care about being re-elected and that means, at least to some extent, listening to their constituents. These residents usually value stability, so politicians who advocate too strongly for growth may find themselves out of office. Mr. Schleicher also notes that incumbent politicians often prefer a stable, immobile electorate because it means that the voters who elected them in the first place will be there next election cycle.

Occupational licensing and land-use regulations make it harder for people to enter thriving local economies, but other policies make it harder to leave areas with poor economies. Nearly 13% of Americans work for state and local governments and 92% of them have a defined-benefit pension plan. Defined-benefit plans have long vesting periods and benefits can be significantly smaller if employees split their career between multiple employers rather than remain at one employer. Thus over 10% of the workforce has a strong retirement-based incentive to stay where they are.

Eligibility standards for public benefits and their amounts also vary by state, and this discourages people who receive benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from moving to states that may have a stronger economy but less benefits. Even when eligibility standards and benefits are similar, the paperwork and time burden of enrolling in a new state can discourage mobility.

The federal government subsidizes home ownership as well, and homeownership is correlated with less labor mobility over time. Place-based subsidies to declining cities also artificially support areas that should have less people. As long as state and federal governments subsidize government services in cities like Atlantic City and Detroit people will be less inclined to leave them. People-based subsidies that incentivize people to move to thriving areas are an alternative that is likely better for the taxpayer, the recipient and the country in the long run.

How to increase labor mobility

Since state and local governments are unlikely to directly address the impediments to labor mobility that they have created, Mr. Schleicher argues for more federal involvement. Some of his suggestions don’t interfere with local control, such as a federal clearinghouse for coordinated occupational-licensing rules across states. This is not a bad idea but I am not sure how effective it would be.

Other suggestions are more intrusive and range from complete federal preemption of state and local rules to federal grants that encourage more housing construction or suspension of the mortgage-interest deduction in places that restrict housing construction.

Local control is important due to the presence of local knowledge and the beneficial effects that arise from interjurisdictional competition, so I don’t support complete federal preemption of local rules. Economist William Fischel also thinks the mortgage interest deduction is largely responsible for excessive local land-use regulation, so eliminating it altogether or suspending it in places that don’t allow enough new housing seems like a good idea.

I also support more people-based subsidies that incentivize moving to areas with better economies and less place-based subsidies. These subsidies could target people living in specific places and the amounts could be based on the economic characteristics of the destination, with larger amounts given to people who are willing to move to areas with the most employment opportunities and/or highest wages.

Making it easier for people to retain any state-based government benefits across state lines would also help improve labor mobility. I support reforms that reduce the paperwork and time requirements for transferring benefits or for simply understanding what steps need to be taken to do so.

Several policy changes will need to occur before we can expect to see significant changes in labor mobility. There is broad agreement around some of them, such as occupational licensing and land-use regulation reform, but bringing them to fruition will take time. As for the less popular ideas, it will be interesting to see which, if any, are tried.

Washington’s Legitimacy Crisis Presents an Opportunity for the States

You’ve heard it before. Americans are deeply unhappy with Washington, DC. Sixty-five percent say the country is on the wrong track. Confidence in institutions is near all-time lows. Congress’s approval rating is terrible, and the two major presidential candidates are viewed more negatively than any other mainstream presidential candidates in recent memory. Only nineteen percent of the public trust the government to do the right thing all or most of the time.

Washington’s dysfunction—what is probably driving these perceptions—extends to all three branches of the federal government. Congress is in a near-permanent state of gridlock. The president uses his executive authority wherever possible, but often with little practical impact. Even regulatory agencies are facing what Brookings Institution scholar Philip Wallach has dubbed a legitimacy crisis of the administrative state, as the public grows more skeptical of leaving the most important policymaking decisions to insulated and unelected regulators.

The courts are in little better shape. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court has been hobbled without its ninth member. Even before this development, there was a perception building that politics too often enters the Court’s decisions, no doubt contributing to the gradual increase in the Supreme Court’s disapproval rating over time.

On a brighter note, in contrast to this crisis of legitimacy at the federal level, polling data suggests that Americans still generally trust their state and local governments. The cop on the beat, the garbage man, and the postal worker, are still trusted symbols of everyday American life.  Furthermore, the social divisions that make dramatic change at the federal level difficult (i.e. red state versus blue state stuff) actually make it easier to get things done in the states.

Where governorships and state legislatures are dominated by a single party, there are opportunities to advance creative policy solutions, allowing the states to fulfill their roles as laboratories of democracy. Policy reforms in the states, where successful, can lay the groundwork for future changes at the federal level, perhaps restoring badly-needed trust in our ailing institutions.

There are a many reasons to be cynical about where the country is headed, and to doubt whether our leaders are capable of addressing our looming challenges. However, the states should not be made complacent by this state of affairs. They should view Washington’s dysfunction as an opportunity and not a reason for despair. Now is an opportune moment to step up and demonstrate what it means to govern. Perhaps…just perhaps… our friends in Washington might pay attention and learn something.

States with lower minimum wages will feel the impact of California’s experiment

California governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law raising California’s minimum wage to $15/hour by 2022. This ill-advised increase in the minimum wage will banish the least productive workers of California – teens, the less educated, the elderly – from the labor market. It will be especially destructive in the poorer areas of California that are already struggling.

And if punishing California’s low-skill workers by preventing them from negotiating their own wage with employers isn’t bad enough, there is reason to believe that a higher minimum wage in a large state like California will eventually affect the employment opportunities of low-skill workers in other areas of the country.

Profit-maximizing firms are always on the lookout for ways to reduce costs holding quality constant (or in the best case scenario to reduce costs and increase quality). Since there are many different ways to produce the same good, if the price of one factor of production, e.g. labor, increases, firms will have an incentive to use less of that factor and more of something else in their production process. For example, if the price of low-skill workers increases relative to the cost of a machine that can do the same job firms will have an incentive to switch to the machine.

To set the stage for this post, let’s think about a real life example; touch screen ordering. Some McDonald’s have touchscreens for ordering food and coffee and San Francisco restaurant eatsa is almost entirely automated (coincidence?). The choice facing a restaurant owner is whether to use a touch screen or cashier. If a restaurant is currently using a cashier and paying them a wage, they will only switch to the touch screen if the cost of switching and the future discounted costs of operating and maintaining the touch screen device are less than the future discounted costs of using workers and paying them a wage plus any benefits. We can write this as

D + K + I + R < W

Where D represents the development costs of creating and perfecting the device, K represents the costs of working out the kinks/the trial run/adjustment costs, I represents the installation costs, and R represents the net present value of the operating and maintenance costs. On the other side of the inequality W represents the net present value of the labor costs. (In math terms R and W are: R = [ ∑ (rk) / (1+i)^n from n=0 to N ] where r is the rental rate of a unit of capital, k is the number of units of capital, and i is the interest rate and W = [ ∑ (wl) /(1+i)^n from n=0 to N ] where w is the wage and l is the amount of labor hours. But if this looks messy and confusing don’t worry about it as it’s not crucial for the example.)

The owner of a restaurant will only switch to a touch screen device rather than a cashier if the left side of the above inequality is less than the right side, since in that case the owner’s costs will be lower and they will earn a larger profit (holding sales constant).

If the cashier is earning the minimum wage or something close to it and the minimum wage is increased, say from $9 to $15, the right side of the above inequality will increase while the left side will stay the same (the w part of W is going up).  If the increase in the wage is large enough to make the right side larger than the left side the firm will switch from a cashier to a touch screen. Suppose that an increase from $9 to $15 does induce a switch to touch screen devices in California McDonald’s restaurants. Can this impact McDonald’s restaurants in areas where the minimum wage doesn’t increase? In theory yes.

Once some McDonald’s restaurants make the switch the costs for other McDonald’s to switch will be lower. The reason for this is that the McDonald’s that switch later will not have to pay the D or K costs; the development or kinks/trial run/adjustment costs. Once the technology is developed and perfected the late-adopting McDonald’s can just copy what has already been done. So after the McDonald’s restaurants in high wage areas install and perfect touch screen devices for ordering, the other McDonald’s face the decision of

I + R < W

This means that it may make sense to adopt the technology once it has been developed and perfected even if the wage in the lower wage areas does not change. In this scenario the left side decreases as D and K go to 0 while the right side stays the same. In fact, one could argue that the R will decline for late-adopting restaurants as well since the maintenance costs will decline over time as more technicians are trained and the reliability and performance of the software and hardware increase.

What this means is that a higher minimum wage in a state like California can lead to a decline in low-skill employment opportunities in places like Greenville, SC and Dayton, OH as the technology employed to offset the higher labor costs in the high minimum wage area spread to lower wage areas.

Also, firm owners and operators live in the real world. They see other state and local governments raising their minimum wage and they start to think that it could happen in their area too. This also gives them an incentive to switch since in expectation labor costs are going up. If additional states make the same bad policy choice as California, firm owners around the country may start to think that resistance is futile and that it’s best to adapt in advance by preemptively switching to more capital.

And if you think that touch screen ordering machines aren’t a good example, here is a link to an article about an automated burger-making machine. The company that created it plans on starting a chain of restaurants that use the machine. Once all of the bugs are worked out how high does the minimum wage need to be before other companies license the technology or create their own by copying what has already been done?

This is one more way that a higher minimum wage negatively impacts low-skill workers; even if workers don’t live in an area that has a relatively high minimum wage, the spread of technology may eliminate their jobs as well.

We don’t need more federal infrastructure spending

Many of the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in fixing America’s infrastructure, including Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. All of them claim that America’s roads and bridges are crumbling and that more money, often in the form of tax increases, is needed before they fall into further disrepair.

The provision of basic infrastructure is one of the most economically sound purposes of government. Good roads, bridges, and ports facilitate economic transactions and the exchange of ideas which helps foster innovation and economic growth. There is certainly room to debate which level of government – federal, state, or local – should provide which type of infrastructure, but I want to start by examining US infrastructure spending over time. To hear the candidates talk one would think that infrastructure spending has fallen of a cliff. What else could explain the current derelict state?

A quick look at the data shows that this simply isn’t true. A 2015 CBO report on public spending on transportation and water infrastructure provides the following figure.

CBO us infrastructure spending

In inflation adjusted dollars (the top panel) infrastructure spending has exhibited a positive trend and was higher on average post 1992 after the completion of the interstate highway system. (By the way, the original estimate for the interstate system was $25 billion over 12 years and it ended up costing $114 billion over 35 years.)

The bottom panel shows that spending as a % of GDP has declined since the early 80s, but it has never been very high, topping out at approximately 6% in 1965. Since the top panel shows an increase in the level of spending, the decline relative to GDP is due to the government increasing spending in other areas over this time period, not cutting spending on infrastructure.

The increase in the level of spending over time is further revealed when looking at per capita spending. Using the data from the CBO report and US population data I created the following figure (dollars are adjusted for inflation and are in 2014 dollars).

infrastructure spend per cap

The top green line is total spending per capita, the middle red line is state and local spending with federal grants and loan subsidies subtracted out, and the bottom blue line is federal spending. Federal spending per capita has remained relatively flat while state and local spending experienced a big jump in the late 80s, which increased the total as well. This graph shows that the amount of infrastructure spending has largely increased when adjusted for inflation and population. It’s true that spending is down since the early 2000s but it’s still higher than at any point prior to the early 90s and higher than it was during the 35-year-construction of the interstate highway system.

Another interesting thing that jumps out is that state and local governments provide the bulk of infrastructure spending. The graph below depicts the percentage of total infrastructure spending that is done by state and local governments.

infrastructure spend state, local as percent of total

As shown in the graph state and local spending on infrastructure has accounted for roughly 75% of total infrastructure spending since the late 80s. Prior to that it averaged about 70% except for a dip to around 65% in the late 70s.

All of this data shows that the federal government – at least in terms of spending – has not ignored the country’s infrastructure over the last 50 plus years, despite the rhetoric one hears from the campaign trail. In fact, on a per capita basis total infrastructure spending has increased since the early 1980s, driven primarily by state and local governments.

And this brings up a second important point: state and local governments are and have always been the primary source of infrastructure spending. The federal government has historically played a small role in building and maintaining roads, bridges, and water infrastructure. And for good reason. As my colleague Veronique de Rugy has pointed out :

“…infrastructure spending by the federal government tends to suffer from massive cost overruns, waste, fraud, and abuse. As a result, many projects that look good on paper turn out to have much lower return on investments than planned.”

As evidence she notes that:

“According to the Danish researchers, American cost overruns reached on average $55 billion per year. This figure includes famous disasters like the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T), better known as the Boston Big Dig.22 By the time the Beantown highway project—the most expensive in American history—was completed in 2008 its price tag was a staggering $22 billion. The estimated cost in 1985 was $2.8 billion. The Big Dig also wrapped up 7 years behind schedule.”

Since state and local governments are doing the bulk of the financing anyway and most infrastructure is local in nature it is best to keep the federal government out as much as possible. States are also more likely to experiment with private methods of infrastructure funding. As de Rugy points out:

“…a number of states have started to finance and operate highways privately. In 1995, Virginia opened the Dulles Greenway, a 14-mile highway, paid for by private bond and equity issues. Similar private highway projects have been completed, or are being pursued, in California, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels leased the highways and made a $4 billion profit for the state’s taxpayers. Consumers in Indiana were better off: the deal not only saved money, but the quality of the roads improved as they were run more efficiently.”

It remains an open question as to exactly how much more money should be devoted to America’s infrastructure. But even if the amount is substantial it’s not clear that the federal government needs to get any more involved than they already are. Infrastructure is largely a state and local issue and that is where the taxing and spending should take place, not in Washington D.C.

 

 

Fixing municipal finances in Pennsylvania

Last week I was a panelist at the Keystone Conference on Business and Policy. The panel was titled Fixing Municipal Finances and myself and the other panelists explained the current state of municipal finances in Pennsylvania, how the municipalities got into their present situation, and what they can do to turn things around. I think it was a productive discussion. To get a sense of what was discussed my opening remarks are below.

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Pennsylvania is the 6th most populous state in the US – just behind IL and in front of OH – and its population is growing.

PA population

But though Pennsylvania is growing, southern and western states are growing faster. According to the US census, from 2013 to 2014 seven of the ten fastest growing states were west of the Mississippi, and two of the remaining three were in the South (FL and SC). Only Washington D.C. at #5 was in the Northeast quadrant. Every state with the largest numeric increase was also in the west or the south. This is the latest evidence that the US population is shifting westward and southward, which has been a long term trend.

Urbanization is slowing down in the US as well. In 1950 only about 60% of the population lived in an urban area. In 2010 a little over 80% did. The 1 to 4 ratio appears to be close to the equilibrium, which means that city growth can no longer come at the expense of rural areas like it did throughout most of the 20th century.

urban, rural proportion

2012 census projections predict only 0.66% annual population growth for the US until 2043. The birth rate among white Americans is already below the replacement rate. Without immigration and the higher birth rates among recent immigrants the US population would be growing even slower, if not shrinking. This means that Pennsylvania cities that are losing population – Erie, Scranton, Altoona, Harrisburg and others – are going to have to attract residents from other cities in order to achieve any meaningful level of growth.

PA city populations

Fixing municipal finances ultimately means aligning costs with revenue. Thus a city that consistently runs a deficit has two options:

  1. Increase revenue
  2. Decrease costs

Municipalities must be vigilant in monitoring their costs since the revenue side is more difficult to control, much like with firms in the private sector. A city’s revenue base – taxpayers – is mobile. Taxpayers can leave if they feel like they are not getting value for their tax dollars, an issue that is largely endogenous to the city itself, or they can leave if another jurisdiction becomes relatively more attractive, which may be exogenous and out of the city’s control (e.g. air conditioning and the South, state policy, the decline of U.S. manufacturing/the economic growth of China, Japan, India, etc.). The aforementioned low natural population growth in the US precludes cities from increasing their tax base without significant levels of intercity migration.

What are the factors that affect location choice? Economist Ed Glaeser has stated that:

“In a service economy where transport costs are small and natural productive resources nearly irrelevant, weather and government stand as the features which should increasingly determine the location of people.” (Glaeser and Kohlhase (2004) p. 212.)

Pennsylvania’s weather is not the worst in the US, but it I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s the best either. The continued migration of people to the south and west reveal that many Americans like sunnier climates. And since PA municipalities cannot alter their weather, they will have to create an attractive fiscal and business environment in order to induce firms and residents to locate within their borders. Comparatively good government is a necessity for Pennsylvania municipalities that want to increase – or simply stabilize – their tax base. Local governments must also strictly monitor their costs, since mobile residents and firms who perceive that a government is being careless with their money can and will leave for greener – and sunnier – pastures.

Fixing municipal finances in Pennsylvania will involve more than just pension reform. Act 47 was passed by the general assembly in 1987 and created a framework for assisting distressed municipalities. Unfortunately, its effectiveness is questionable. Since 1987, 29 municipalities have been placed under Act 47, but only 10 have recovered and each took an average of 9.3 years to do so. Currently 19 municipalities are designated as distressed under Act 47 and 13 of the 19 are cities. Only one city has recovered in the history of Act 47 – the city of Nanticoke. The average duration of the municipalities currently under Act 47 is 16.5 years. The city of Aliquippa has been an Act 47 city since 1987 and is on its 6th recovery plan.

Act 47 bar graphAct 47 under pie chartAct 47 recovered pie chart

The majority of municipalities that have recovered from Act 47 status have been smaller boroughs (8 of 10). The average population of the recovered communities using the most recent data is 5,569 while the average population of the currently-under communities is 37,106. The population distribution for the under municipalities is skewed due to the presence of Pittsburgh, but even the median of the under cities is nearly double that of the recovered at 9,317 compared to 4,669.

Act 47 avg, med. population

This raises the question of whether Act 47 is an effective tool for dealing with larger municipalities that have comparatively larger problems and perhaps a more difficult time reaching a political/community consensus concerning what to do.

To attract new residents and increase revenue, local governments must give taxpayers/voters/residents a reason for choosing their city over the alternatives available. Economist Richard Wagner argues that governments are a lot like businesses. He states:

“In order to attract investors [residents, voters], politicians develop new programs and revise old programs in a continuing search to meet the competition, just as ordinary businesspeople do in ordinary commercial activity.” (American Federalism – How well does it support liberty? (2014))

Ultimately, local governments in Pennsylvania must provide exceptional long-term value for residents in order to make up for the place-specific amenities they lack. This is easier said than done, but I think it’s necessary to ensure the long-run solvency of Pennsylvania’s municipalities.

Pennsylvania taxpayer’s new “boutique” apartments

Eric Blumenfeld Realty Management (EBRM) recently secured $44 million in financing to restore the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia. According to the article:

“EBRM will renovate the 9-story property into a boutique residential community comprised of 109-rental units to sit above 20,000 s/f of restaurant and retail space.”

But Blumenfeld did not receive ordinary financing. Instead EBRM largely circumvented the private sector capital markets and received a substantial portion of its financing courtesy of the Pennsylvania taxpayer:

“The hotel’s revitalization involved coordinating with an array of state and city governmental agencies and programs, including the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority which provided a $2,500,000 loan and $1,000,000 grant, the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program which provided a $3,500,000 RACP grant, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. which provided a bridge loan for the state grant, and the parks department which is anticipated to provide $8,000,000 in historic tax credits financing.”

In total EBRM received over $15 million in government grants, loans, and tax credits, including a RACP grant, which my research shows simply shuffles economic activity around Pennsylvania and puts taxpayers on the hook for paying back the bonds that fund the program – with interest.

I appreciate the renovation of historic landmarks but I don’t think taxpayers should have to help with the financing. Boutique apartments are a private good and as such their provision is best left to the market, without assistance from public funds. Some businesses choose to pursue government grants and subsidies rather than create a business plan that private investors are willing to finance – and who can blame them? It’s often easier to work with local governments that are just waiting to throw money at any business venture that promises jobs than to go through the trouble of creating a profitable business capable of attracting investors.

If you’re a Pennsylvania taxpayer thinking about moving to Philadelphia I recommend a new unit in the remodeled Divine Lorraine. At least that way you might get something for your money.

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.

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.