Tag Archives: research

Are you ready for some (subsidized) football?

This weekend marks the start of the NFL season, and with it comes the fanfare and attention that being the most lucrative professional sport in America has come to demand.  However, this success has fueled the lucrative stadium financing deals that have been secured by these teams over the past 20 years, often at the expense of taxpayers.

Olympic Stadium London - Anniversary (Blended)Take, for example, the stadium deal given to the Cincinnati Bengals by Hamilton County in Ohio. Still the most lucrative subsidy in the history of professional football, taxpayers were left paying 94 percent of the $449.8 million tab. This amount doesn’t include other costs in the generous lease, such as the agreement by the county to cover all of the costs of operation and capital improvements. The lease also leaves taxpayers on the hook to fund projects that have not even been invented yet, such things as “ticketless entry systems,” “stadium self-cleaning machines,” and even “holographic replay machines.”

The Cincinnati Bengals are certainly not alone in getting these sorts of publicly-funded gifts. The Buffalo Bills recently obtained $95 million in subsidies for stadium upgrades.  In return, the state of New York will be given a luxury suite to promote the sorts of corporate handouts that the state can give to other businesses.  Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons will receive $200 million from the city of Atlanta toward a new stadium, funded through bonds backed by the city’s hotel-motel tax.  The Kansas City Chiefs and the Carolina Panthers have also recently received generous taxpayer-funded stadium deals.  The list goes on.  Nearly every NFL stadium built since 1997 has received some public funding.

And what do these deals really do to promote economic development?  Almost nothing.  According to economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson, researchers looking into the economic impact of new sports facilities “have almost invariably found little or no economic benefits.”  This should come as no surprise to economists and policymakers.  Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys have surveyed the literature and found “a great deal of consistency among economists doing research in this area. That . . . sports subsidies cannot be justified on the grounds of local economic development, income growth or job creation.”

Why, then, do politicians continue to hand out these privileges at the taxpayers’ expense? One answer is that these sports teams are well-connected and well-organized, giving them an inherent lobbying advantage over a multitude of unorganized taxpayers.  For example, the owner of the Miami Dolphins has created an active political group to attack lawmakers he blames for a failed measure to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade to Sun Life Stadium.

Another possible explanation is that people love their hometown teams, and most politicians are eager to associate themselves with anything that appears popular.  Even if that means giving these teams handouts at the taxpayers’ expense.

So as the football season begins and continues to play out over the next 6 months, you ought to take some time to enjoy your hometown team.  Odds are, you are already paying for it.

FDA is Finally Gluten-Free

by OngjulianBrady Dennis reported in the Washington Post that after nine excruciating years FDA finally came up with a “gluten-free” standard. It took so long for the usual reasons, as Dennis explains in his article:

Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the FDA took an “excruciating” amount of time to finalize its gluten-free definition in part because it had to consider a massive amount of research on celiac disease as well as varying opinions from activists who wanted even more stringent standards and industry officials who argued for more lenient requirements. In the end, he said, the agency struck the right balance.

The question that the article failed to ask was whether the FDA standard was even necessary. As Dennis points out, there are several independent private organizations that certify gluten-free products. Thus, not only do markets provide gluten-free certification, they also give consumers a choice on the standard’s stringency. Consumers who are highly sensitive to gluten can pick the labels that impose more stringent standards. Less sensitive consumers could choose products with higher gluten content.

Instead of fighting for nine long years for a single government imposed standard, why not let markets do what they do best – offer consumers better choices at lower prices?

Why Regulations Fail

Last week, David Fahrenthold wrote a great article in the Washington Post, in which he described the sheer absurdity of a USDA regulation mandating a small town magician to develop a disaster evacuation plan for his rabbit (the rabbit was an indispensible part of trick that also involved a hat). The article provides a good example of the federal regulatory process’ flaws that can derail even the best-intentioned regulations. I list a few of these flaws below.

  1. Bad regulations often start with bad congressional statutes. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966, the statute authorizing the regulation, was meant to prevent medical labs from using lost pets for experiments. Over time, the statute expanded to include all warm-blooded animals (pet lizards apparently did not merit congressional protection) and to apply to zoos and circuses in addition to labs (pet stores, dog and cat shows, and several other venues for exhibiting animals were exempt).The statute’s spotty coverage resulted from political bargaining rather than the general public interest in animal welfare. The USDA rule makes the statute’s arbitrariness immediately apparent. Why would a disaster plan benefit circus animals but not the animals in pet stores or farms? (A colleague of mine jokingly suggested eating the rabbit as part of an evacuation plan, since rabbits raised for meat are exempt from the regulation’s requirements).
  2. Regulations face little oversight. When media reported on the regulation’s absurdity, the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered the regulation to be reviewed. It seems that even the agency’s head was caught off guard by the actions of his agency’s regulators. Beyond internal supervision, only a fraction of regulations face external oversight. Of over 2600 regulations issued in 2012, less than 200 were subject to the OMB review (data from GAO and OMB). Interestingly, the OMB did review the USDA rule but offered only minor revisions.
  3. Agencies often fail to examine the need for regulation. In typical Washington fashion, the agency decided to regulate in response to a crisis – Hurricane Katrina in this case. In fact, the USDA offered little more than Katrina’s example to justify the regulation. It offered little evidence that the lack of disaster evacuation plans was a widespread problem that required the federal government to step in. In this, the USDA is not alone. According to the Mercatus Center’s Regulatory Report Card, which evaluates agencies’ economic analysis, few agencies offer substantial evidence justifying the need for promulgated regulations.
  4. Agencies often fail to examine the regulation’s effectiveness. The USDA’s plan to save animals in case of a disaster was to require owners to draw up an evacuation plan. It offered little evidence that having a plan would in fact save the animals. For example, the magician’s evacuation plan called for shoving the rabbit into a plastic bag and getting out. In the USDA’s view, the magician would not have thought of doing the same had he not drawn up the evacuation plan beforehand.
  5. The public has little influence in the process. By law, agencies are required to ask the public for input on proposed regulations. Yet, small businesses and individual consumers rarely have time or resources to keep an eye on federal agencies. In general, organized interests dominate the commenting process. The article describes the magician’s surprise to learn that he was required to have a license and a disaster evacuation plan his rabbit, even though the regulation was in the works for a few years and was open for public comments for several months. Most small businesses, much like this magician, learn about regulations only after they have passed.
  6. Public comments are generally ignored. Most public comments that the USDA received argued against the rule. They pointed out that it would impose substantial costs on smaller businesses. The agency dismissed the comments with little justification. This case is not unique. Research indicates that agencies rarely make substantial changes to regulations in response to public comments.

Delaying the Rearview Camera Rule is Good for the Poor

A few weeks ago, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it would delay implementation of a regulation requiring that rearview cameras be installed in new automobiles. The rule was designed to prevent backover accidents by increasing drivers’ fields of vision to include the area behind and underneath vehicles. The DOT said more research was needed before finalizing the regulation, but there is another, perhaps more important reason for delaying the rule. The costs of this rule, and many others like it, weigh most heavily on those with low incomes, while the benefits cater to the preferences of those who are better-off financially.

The rearview camera regulation was expected to increase the cost of an automobile by approximately $200. This may not seem like much money, but it means a person buying a new car will have less money on hand to spend on other items that improve quality of life. These items might include things like healthcare or healthier food. Those who already have access to quality healthcare services, or who shop regularly at high end supermarkets like Whole Foods, may prefer to have the risk of a backup accident reduced over the additional $200 spent on a new car. Alternatively, those who don’t have easy access to healthcare or healthy food, may well prefer the $200.

A lot of regulation is really about reducing risks. Some risks pose large dangers, like the risk of radiation exposure (or death) if you are within range of a nuclear blast. Some risks pose small dangers, like a mosquito bite. Some risks are very likely, like the risk of stubbing your toe at some point in your lifetime, while other risks are very remote, like the chance that the Earth will be hit by a gigantic asteroid next week.

Risks are everywhere and can never be eliminated entirely from life. If we tried to eliminate every risk we face, we’d all live like John Travolta in the movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (and of course, he could also be hit by an asteroid!). The question we need to ask ourselves is: how do we manage risks in a way that makes the most sense given limited resources in society? In addition to this important question, we may also want to ask ourselves to what degree distributional effects are important as we consider which risks to mitigate?

There are two main ways that society can manage risks. First, we can manage risks we face privately, say by choosing to eat vegetables often or to go to the gym. In this way, a person can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in the United States, as well as other health problems. We can also choose to manage risks publicly, say through regulation or other government action. For example, the government passes laws requiring everyone to get vaccinated against certain illnesses, and this reduces the risk of getting sick from those around us.

Not surprisingly, low income families spend less on private risk mitigation than high income families do. Similarly, those who live in lower income areas tend to face higher mortality risks from a whole host of factors (e.g. accidents, homicide, cancer), when compared to those who live in wealthier neighborhoods. People with higher incomes tend to demand more risk reduction, just as they demand more of other goods or services. Therefore, spending money to reduce very low probability risks, like the risk of being backed over by a car in reverse, is more in line with preferences of the wealthy, since the wealthy will demand more risk reduction of this sort than the poor will.

Such a rule may also result in unintended consequences.  Just as using seat belts has been shown to lead to people driving faster, relying on a rearview camera when driving in reverse may lead to people being less careful about backing up.  For example, someone could be running outside of the camera’s view, and only come into view just as he or she is hit by the car.  Relying on cameras entirely may increase the risk of some people getting hit.

When the government intervenes and reduces risks for us, it is making a choice for us about which risks are most important, and forcing everyone in society to pay to address these risks. But not all risks are the same. In the case of the rearview camera rule, everyone must pay the extra money for the new device in the car (unless they forgo buying a new car which also carries risks), yet the risk of accident in a backup crash is small relative to other risks. Simply moving out of a low income neighborhood can reduce a whole host of risks that low income families face. By forcing the poor to pay to reduce the likelihood of tiny probability events, DOT is essentially saying poor people shouldn’t have the option of reducing larger risks they face. Instead, the poor should share the burden of reducing risks that are more in line with the preferences of the wealthy, who have likely already paid to reduce the types of risks that low income families still face.

Politicians and regulators like to claim that they are saving lives with regulation and just leave it at that. But the reality is often much more complicated with unintended consequences and regressive effects. Regulations have costs and those costs often fall disproportionately on those with the least ability to pay. Regulations also involve tradeoffs that leave some groups better off, while making other groups worse off. When one of the groups made worse off is the poor, we should think very carefully before proceeding with a policy, no matter how well intentioned policymakers may be.

The DOT is delaying the rearview camera rule so it can conduct more research on the issue. This is a sensible decision. Everyone wants to reduce the prevalence of backover accidents, but we should be looking for ways to achieve this goal that don’t disadvantage the least well off in society.

Should Illinois be Downgraded? Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

No one disputes that Illinois’s pension systems are in seriously bad condition with large unfunded obligations. But should this worry Illinois bondholders? New Mercatus research by Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions finds that recent downgrades of Illinois’s bonds by credit ratings agencies aren’t merited. He models the default risk of Illinois and Indiana based on a projection of these states’ financial position. These findings are put in the context of the history of state default and the role the credit ratings agencies play in debt markets. The influence of credit ratings agencies in this market is the subject a guest blog post by Marc today at Neighborhood Effects.

Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

by Marc Joffe

Prices play a crucial role in a market economy because they provide signals to buyers and sellers about the availability and desirability of goods. Because prices coordinate supply and demand, they enabled the market system to triumph over Communism – which lacked a price mechanism.

Interest rates are also prices. They reflect investor willingness to delay consumption and take on risk. If interest rates are manipulated, serious dislocations can occur. As both Horwitz and O’Driscoll have discussed, the Fed’s suppression of interest rates in the early 2000s contributed to the housing bubble, which eventually gave way to a crash and a serious financial crisis.

Even in the absence of Fed policy errors, interest rate mispricing is possible. For example, ahead of the financial crisis, investors assumed that subprime residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) were less risky than they really were. As a result, subprime mortgage rates did not reflect their underlying risk and thus too many dicey borrowers received home loans. The ill effects included a wave of foreclosures and huge, unexpected losses by pension funds and other institutional investors.

The mis-pricing of subprime credit risk was not the direct result of Federal Reserve or government intervention; instead, it stemmed from investor ignorance. Since humans lack perfect foresight, some degree of investor ignorance is inevitable, but it can be minimized through reliance on expert opinion.

In many markets, buyers rely on expert opinions when making purchase decisions. For example, when choosing a car we might look at Consumer Reports. When choosing stocks, we might read investment newsletters or review reports published by securities firms – hopefully taking into account potential biases in the latter case. When choosing fixed income most large investors rely on credit rating agencies.

The rating agencies assigned what ultimately turned out to be unjustifiably high ratings to subprime RMBS. This error and the fact that investors relied so heavily on credit rating agencies resulted in the overproduction and overconsumption of these toxic securities. Subsequent investigations revealed that the incorrect rating of these instruments resulted from some combination of suboptimal analytical techniques and conflicts of interest.

While this error occurred in market context, the institutional structure of the relevant market was the unintentional consequence of government interventions over a long period of time. Rating agencies first found their way into federal rulemaking in the wake of the Depression. With the inception of the FDIC, regulators decided that expert third party evaluations were needed to ensure that banks were investing depositor funds wisely.

The third party regulators chose were the credit rating agencies. Prior to receiving this federal mandate, and for a few decades thereafter, rating agencies made their money by selling manuals to libraries and institutional investors. The manuals included not only ratings but also large volumes of facts and figures about bond issuers.

After mid-century, the business became tougher with the advent of photocopiers. Eventually, rating agencies realized (perhaps implicitly) that they could monetize their federally granted power by selling ratings to bond issuers.

Rather than revoking their regulatory mandate in the wake of this new business model, federal regulators extended the power of incumbent rating agencies – codifying their opinions into the assessments of the portfolios of non-bank financial institutions.

With the growth in fixed income markets and the inception of structured finance over the last 25 years, rating agencies became much larger and more profitable. Due to their size and due to the fact that their ratings are disseminated for free, rating agencies have been able to limit the role of alternative credit opinion providers. For example, although a few analytical firms market their insights directly to institutional investors, it is hard for these players to get much traction given the widespread availability of credit ratings at no cost.

Even with rating agencies being written out of regulations under Dodd-Frank, market structure is not likely to change quickly. Many parts of the fixed income business display substantial inertia and the sheer size of the incumbent firms will continue to make the environment challenging for new entrants.

Regulatory involvement in the market for fixed income credit analysis has undoubtedly had many unintended consequences, some of which may be hard to ascertain in the absence of unregulated markets abroad. One fairly obvious negative consequence has been the stunting of innovation in the institutional credit analysis field.

Despite the proliferation of computer technology and statistical research methods, credit rating analysis remains firmly rooted in its early 20th century origins. Rather than estimate the probability of a default or the expected loss on a credit instruments, rating agencies still provide their assessments in the form of letter grades that have imprecise definitions and can easily be misinterpreted by market participants.

Starting with the pioneering work of Beaver and Altman in the 1960s, academic models of corporate bankruptcy risk have become common, but these modeling techniques have had limited impact on rating methodology.

Worse yet, in the area of government bonds, very little academic or applied work has taken place. This is especially unfortunate because government bond ratings frame the fiscal policy debate. In the absence of credible government bond ratings, we have no reliable way of estimating the probability that any government’s revenue and expenditure policies will lead to a socially disruptive default in the future. Further, in the absence of credible research, there is great likelihood that markets inefficiently price government bond risk – sending confusing signals to policymakers and the general public.

Given these concerns, I am pleased that the Mercatus Center has provided me the opportunity to build a model for Illinois state bond credit risk (as well as a reference model for Indiana). This is an effort to apply empirical research and Monte Carlo simulation techniques to the question of how much risk Illinois bondholders actually face.

While readers may not like my conclusion – that Illinois bonds carry very little credit risk – I hope they recognize the benefits of constructing, evaluating and improving credit models for systemically important public sector entities like our largest states. Hopefully, this research will contribute to a discussion about how we can improve credit rating assessments.

 

 

Come learn about whether tax and expenditure limits work

A few years ago I did a study on state Tax and Expenditure Limits (TELs). These are state rules—written into statutes or constitutions—which are designed to arrest the growth of state spending. New Jersey was the first state to adopt a TEL in 1976, and now about 30 states have some variety of TEL.

As I explained in a Wall Street Journal OpEd at the time, though fiscal conservatives have spent decades championing TELs, “these laws may actually be doing more harm than good.” The problem is that the most common variety of TEL—one that limits spending to some share of residents’ income—actually leads to more spending in high-income states. Not all TELs have this feature and my research suggests that the details matter. I found that TELs that limit spending growth to the sum of inflation and population growth, for example, seem to arrest spending in both high and low income states.

Now, Bemjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute has revisited the question with an interesting and provocative new paper that reaches an even more pessimistic conclusion that I did.

Come to AEI tomorrow at noon where I and others will be discussing Zycher’s paper. Other discussants include Nicholas Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Michael New of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The event will be moderated by Mark Perry of AEI and the University of Michigan-Flint.

It promises to be a fun and lively discussion. Details here.

Does Washington, D.C. create value?

In recent remarks on the Senate floor, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) contended:

There is a reason that six of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States are suburbs of Washington, D.C.–a city that produces almost nothing of actual economic value.

This assertion prompted a fact check from the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler. Kessler grants that Lee is correct in that “six of the 10 wealthiest counties are suburbs of Washington, D.C.” But he goes on to contend:

There’s not really an economic concept that equates to “tangible economic value,” at least as Lee seems to be suggesting. Thus it is hard to disaggregate activity ultimately benefiting from the federal government.

I think most economists would disagree. There is, indeed, an economic concept that distinguishes between “tangible economic value” and the lack thereof. The idea is called rent-seeking.

First, consider how people profit from voluntary exchange. If two parties voluntarily exchange, both expect to gain from the interaction. The consumer expects to gain some value from the product that is in excess of what he pays (otherwise he wouldn’t part with his money). And the producer expects to receive some price in excess of her costs, including the opportunity cost of doing something else with the product (otherwise, she wouldn’t part with the product). The sum of this consumer and producer surplus is called “economic surplus” and it is at the heart of economics. Indeed, it is at the heart of human progress.

Sometimes, however, the producer is the exclusive producer of the particular product. Her exclusivity could be natural (only Michael Jordan could do what he could do), or it could be contrived (by law, only the USPS is allowed to deliver non-urgent mail). Whether natural or contrived, exclusivity permits a producer to capture a larger share of economic surplus than she otherwise would. This above-normal producer surplus is a payment in excess of what would be necessary to bring the good to market. Economists call it an economic rent (and it has nothing to do with apartments).

Significant problems arise when exclusivity is contrived. One problem is that people will invest valuable resources–time, money, effort–into convincing those with political power to grant them an exclusivity. People will lobby. They will donate to campaigns. They will make products that politicians like instead of products that consumers like. All of this is potentially wasteful and it is called rent seeking.

It isn’t easy to measure the losses from rent seeking (though a few have tried). But I suspect this is exactly what Senator Lee had in mind. After all, Washington, D.C. Is the place people go to seek rent. Want to force people to buy your product? Go to Washington and seek an individual mandate. Want to make your competitors’ product more expensive than your own? Go to Washington and seek tariffs of up to 250 percent on foreign producers. Want to raise the production costs of your competitors? Go to Washington and seek a production standard that plays to your competitive advantage.

Rent seeking is hardly a fringe concept. Professors Roger Congleton, Arye Hillman and Kai Konrad have just released a two-volume anthology of rent seeking research called 40 Years of Research on Rent Seeking (I know; not cheap). They report that the EconLit database has over 401 academic journals and books with “rent seeking” in the title and that a Google Scholar search produces 1,500 papers include the term.

Mr. Kessler is right that much of what happens in D.C. is not rent seeking. But his assertion that only 40 percent of the region’s gross product came from government spending is hardly convincing. That isn’t just a “big chunk.” It’s a mammoth chunk. Moreover, it misses the fact that a lot of “private” economic activity in the region is still related to rent-seeking. See, for example, the K-Street corridor.

These critiques aside, the fact check missed a nice opportunity to educate the public on an important concept at the core of modern economics.

Do targeted economic development deals work as advertised?

Every so often, journalists write quid pro quo stories about government officials who accept favors (campaign donations, sports tickets, airplane rides, etc.) from people who stand to benefit from government-granted privileges (special tax deals, subsidies, favorable government contracts, etc.).

Like this report in the Post this weekend, most of these stories seem to nudge the reader in the direction of thinking that the solution is more regulation of campaign activity or more oversight of gifts to politicians. My question is: why focus exclusively on the gifts that politicians receive instead of on the privileges that politicians dispense? Why focus on the quid and not the quo?

That’s where a five part series by WAMU’s Julie Patel and Patrick Madden comes in. They are only two stories in, but it is shaping up to be an excellent critique of the entire practice of local economic development privileges:

Construction cranes can be seen throughout the district. Less visible are the symbiotic relationships between land developers and city officials awarding tax breaks and discounted land deals. Those government subsidies are meant to revive neighborhoods, and to create jobs and affordable housing. But in some cases, the benefits never materialized, or the subsidies simply weren’t needed.

And what began as a targeted economic development tool now looks to some like government hand outs that could have paid for other city services.

Appropriately, Patel and Madden plumb the data to look for insider deals and conflicts of interest. But their analysis seems to go beyond that. In tomorrow’s segment, for example, they plan to look at whether targeted economic development tools work as advertised:

Developers receiving subsidies pledge jobs, affordable housing and other benefits for D.C. residents. Yet with little oversight and enforcement, many of the promises were downsized, delayed or broken.

Another intrepid reporter who recently asked this question is Louise Story of the New York Times. She and her team “spent 10 months investigating business incentives awarded by hundreds of cities, counties and states” and assembled a unique database along the way.

If local subsidies worked as advertised, we’d expect to see greater economic growth in those states that give away more subsidies. But simple analysis of Story’s data suggests that, if anything, there is a negative relationship between per capita subsidies and economic growth:

Subsidies and growth

In this graph, the x-axis plots per capita subsidies and the y-axis plots real (inflation-adjusted) state economic growth from 1997 to 2011 (the general time period over which Story has data).

I also ran a series of econometric tests, sometimes controlling for other factors (regional effects, the initial size of state economies, and economic freedom) and sometimes not. In every test I ran, per capita subsidies were negatively associated with state economic growth and often the relationship was statistically significant (I should note that the Mercatus measure of economic freedom was always positively and statistically significantly related to growth).

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a back-of-the-envelope exercise (for example I do not try to control for reverse causality). I hope to see more careful research based on Story’s database soon. But based on what I’ve seen so far, I see no reason to presume that local, targeted economic development schemes work as advertised.

Given the social and economic problems associated with government-granted privileges, I think we should view such schemes with a healthy dose of skepticism.

You tell me it’s the institution…

When scandals erupt, the human tendency is to look for some nefarious person wearing a black hat and blame them. However psychologically satisfying this may be, it is not particularly helpful. It offers no constructive solution to avoid future problems, other than to be “ever-vigilant” against bad behavior.

In contrast, law professor Victor Fleischer’s take on the unfolding IRS scandal is a nice example of a more-useful reaction, one that focuses on the institutional factors that made the scandal likely to happen in the first place:

The root of the problem is poor institutional design, not a political conspiracy. Current law forces the I.R.S. to enforce a vague set of campaign finance laws that have next to nothing to do with raising revenue.

It is constructive to apply Fleischer’s approach to another unfolding scandal. In the past few weeks, the press has reported that the FBI is investigating Virginia Governor McDonnell for his ties to a major donor, Jonnie Williams. Williams, described by McDonnell as a close family friend, paid for the food at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding reception and loaned the first family his fancy sports car for a day. In the last few years, the governor and the first lady seem to have given Williams’s company, Star Scientific, free promotion. For example, in August of 2011, McDonnell appeared at an event promoting Star Scientific at the Executive Mansion. And in June of 2011, the first lady flew to Florida to tout the company’s product, a dietary supplement.

The inquiry apparently began out of concern for the possibility of a quid pro quo: perhaps the governor and the first lady offered this free promotion in exchange for political and personal favors? For their part, the governor and first lady have maintained that it is their job is to promote Virginia businesses.

Indeed, the state legislature seems to think this is part of the governor’s job. Over the years, legislators have given the governor a host of tools to offer exclusive privileges to particular businesses. For example, the Governor’s Opportunity Fund “is a discretionary incentive available to the Governor to secure a business location or expansion project for Virginia.” There’s also the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. This too gives grants “at the discretion of the Governor.” You can read about these and other programs at the “business incentives” section of the Virginia Economic Partnership website. There, you will see that privileges include subsidies, matching grants, in-kind donations such as training, corporate and individual income tax credits, sales and use tax exemptions, property tax exemptions, and various financing programs. (In the case of Star Scientific, the governor seems not to have availed himself of any of these programs. Instead, he and his wife seem to have simply talked favorably about the company, just as they frequently talk favorably about other Virginia businesses.)

Presumably legislatures give governors the authority to grant special favors to firms because they believe these favors benefit the state. But the evidence that targeted incentives lead to any sort of widespread prosperity is quite scant. And as my research has emphasized, privileges lead to a host of economic problems because they undermine competition, encourage wasteful privilege-seeking, and put politicians rather than consumers in charge of allocating capital and resources.

But the Virginia story illustrates another cost of privilege: it inevitably invites questions of impropriety. The fact is, it is very difficult to devise objective criteria for dispensing privileges to particular firms. So one doesn’t have to look very hard to find apparently subjective decisions: Was Solyndra awarded half a billion taxpayer dollars because it had a superior business model? Or was it given money because green energy is politically popular and the vice president wanted to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony there? Did the Administration offer trade protection to domestic solar panel makers because the Chinese were engaged in “unfair competition” or because domestic solar panel manufacturers are politically powerful and well-connected?

I don’t see how these questions could possibly be answered definitively. Instead of trying to pretend that they can be, we should change the institutions that inevitably give rise to charges of impropriety. We should stop presuming that an elected official’s job description includes the promotion of particular businesses. If we stop asking politicians to pick winners and losers, there will be no more scandals about whom they pick.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, Governor McDonnell appointed me to serve on Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists. Once a year I travel to Richmond and offer my opinion on the state’s economic and fiscal forecasts. I am not compensated for my participation.

Is an economically freer society a more tolerant society?

Last week was a difficult one. It’s not clear what motivated the heinous acts in Boston but it seems safe to say that intolerance played some role. New research published by Niclas Berggrenn and Therese Nilsson in the journal Kyklos suggests one way to make the world a better, more tolerant place:

Tolerance has the potential to affect both economic growth and wellbeing. It is therefore important to discern its determinants. We contribute to the literature by investigating whether the degree to which economic institutions and policies are market‐oriented is related to different measures of tolerance. Cross‐sectional and first‐difference regression analysis of up to 69 countries reveals that economic freedom is positively related to tolerance towards homosexuals, especially in the longer run, while tolerance towards people of a different race and a willingness to teach kids tolerance are not strongly affected by how free markets are. Stable monetary policy and outcomes is the area of economic freedom most consistently associated with greater tolerance, but the quality of the legal system seems to matter as well. Through instrumental variables and first‐difference results we find indications of a causal relationship.

An un-gated version is here.