Tag Archives: tax

The unseen costs of Amazon’s HQ2 Site Selection

Earlier this year Amazon narrowed down the list of potential cities to site its second headquarters. Applicants are now waiting out the selection process. It’s unclear when Amazon will make its choice, but that hasn’t stopped many from speculating who the likely contenders are. Varying sources report Atlanta, Boston, and Washington D.C. at the top of the list. The cities that didn’t make the cut are no doubt envious of the finalists, having just missed out on the potential for a $5 billion facility and 50,000 jobs. The second HQ is supposed to be as significant for economic growth as the company’s first site, which according to Amazon’s calculations contributed an additional $38 billion to Seattle’s economy between 2010 and 2016. There is clearly a lot to be gained by the winner.  But there are also many costs. Whichever city ends up winning the bid will be changed forever. What’s left out of the discussion is how the bidding process and corporate incentives affect the country.

Although the details of the proposals are not made public, each finalist is likely offering some combination of tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives in return for the company’s choice to locate in their city. The very bidding process necessitates a lot of time and effort by many parties. It will certainly seem “worth it” to the winning party, but the losers aren’t getting back the time and effort they spent.

This practice of offering incentives for businesses has been employed by states and localities for decades, with increased usage over time. Targeted economic development incentives can take the form of tax exemptions, abatements, regulatory relief, and taxpayer assistance. They are but one explicit cost paid by states and cities looking to secure business, and there is a growing literature that suggests these policies are more costly than meets the eye.

First, there’s the issue of economic freedom. Recent Mercatus research suggests that there may be a tradeoff to offering economic development incentives like the ones that Amazon is receiving. Economists John Dove and Daniel Sutter find that states that spend more on targeted development incentives as a percentage of gross state product also have less overall economic freedom. The theoretical reasoning behind this is not very clear, but Dove and Sutter propose that it could be because state governments that use more subsidies or tax breaks to attract businesses will also spend more or raise taxes for everyone else in their state, resulting in less equitable treatment of their citizens and reducing overall economic freedom.

The authors define an area as having more economic freedom if it has lower levels of government spending, taxation, and labor market restrictions. They use the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America Index (EFNA) to measure this. Of the three areas within the EFNA index, labor market freedom is the most affected by targeted economic development incentives. This means that labor market regulation such as the minimum wage, government employment, and union density are all significantly related to the use of targeted incentives.

Economic freedom can be ambiguous, however, and it’s sometimes hard to really grasp its impact on our lives. It sounds nice in theory, but because of its vagueness, it may not seem as appealing as a tangible economic development incentive package and the corresponding business attached to it. Economic freedom is associated with a series of other, more tangible benefits, including higher levels of income and faster economic growth. There’s also evidence that greater economic freedom is associated with urban development.

Not only is the practice of offering targeted incentives associated with lower economic freedom, but it is also indicative of other issues. Economists Peter Calcagno and Frank Hefner have found that states with budget issues, high tax and regulatory burdens, and poorly trained labor forces are also more likely to offer targeted incentives as a way to offset costly economic conditions. Or, in other words, targeted development incentives can be – and often are – used to compensate for a less than ideal business climate. Rather than reform preexisting fiscal or regulatory issues within a state, the status quo and the use of targeted incentives is the more politically feasible option.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Amazon’s bidding process is the effect it has on our culture. Ideally, economic development policy should be determined by healthy economic competition between states. In practice, it has evolved into more of an unhealthy interaction between private interests and political favor. Economists Joshua Jansa and Virginia Gray refer to this as cultural capture. They find increases in business political contributions to be positively correlated with state subsidy spending. Additionally, they express concern over the types of firms that these subsidies attract. There is a selection bias for targeted incentives to systematically favor “flighty firms” or firms that will simply relocate if better subsidies are offered by another state, or potentially threaten to leave in an effort to extract more subsidies.

None of these concerns even address the question of whether targeted incentives actually achieve their intended goals.  The evidence does not look good. In a review of the literature by my colleague Matthew Mitchell, and me, we found that of the studies that evaluate the effect of targeted incentives on the broader economy, only one study found a positive effect, whereas four studies found unanimously negative effects. Thirteen studies (half of the sample) found no statistically significant effect, and the remaining papers found mixed results in which some companies or industries won, but at the expense of others.

In addition to these unseen costs on the economy, some critics are beginning to question whether being chosen by Amazon is even worth it. Amazon’s first headquarters has been considered a catalyst for the city’s tech industry, but local government and business leaders have raised concerns about other possibly related issues such as gentrification, rising housing prices, and persistent construction and traffic congestion. There is less research on this, but it is worth considering.

It is up to each city’s policymakers to decide whether these trade-offs are worth it. I would argue, however, that much of the evidence points to targeted incentives – like the ones that cities are using to attract Amazon’s business – as having more costs than benefits. Targeted economic development incentives may seem to offer a lot of tangible benefits, but their unseen costs should not be overlooked. From the perspective of how they benefit each state’s economy as a whole, targeted incentives are detrimental to economic freedom as well as our culture surrounding corporate handouts. Last but not least, they may often be an attempt to cover up other issues that are unattractive to businesses.

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.

More labor market freedom means more labor force participation

The U.S. labor force participation (LFP) rate has yet to bounce back to its pre-recession level. Some of the decline is due to retiring baby-boomers but even the prime-age LFP rate, which only counts people age 25 – 54 and thus less affected by retirement, has not recovered.

Economists and government officials are concerned about the weak recovery in labor force participation. A high LFP rate is usually a sign of a strong economy—people are either working or optimistic about their chances of finding a job. A low LFP rate is often a sign of little economic opportunity or disappointment with the employment options available.

The U.S. is a large, diverse country so the national LFP rate obscures substantial state variation in LFP rates. The figure below shows the age 16 and up LFP rates for the 50 states and the U.S. as a whole (black bar) in 2014. (data)


The rates range from a high of 72.6% in North Dakota to a low of 53.1% in West Virginia. The U.S. rate was 62.9%. Several of the states with relatively low rates are in the south, including Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Florida and Arizona also had relatively low labor force participation, which is not surprising considering their reputations as retirement destinations.

There are several reasons why some states have more labor force participation than others. Demographics is one: states with a higher percentage of people over age 65 and between 16 and 22 will have lower rates on average since people in these age groups are often retired or in school full time. States also have different economies made up of different industries and at any given time some industries are thriving while others are struggling.

Federal and state regulation also play a role. Federal regulation disparately impacts different states because of the different industrial compositions of state economies. For example, states with large energy industries tend to be more affected by federal regulation than other states.

States also tax and regulate their labor markets differently. States have different occupational licensing standards, different minimum wages and different levels of payroll and income taxes among other things. Each of these things alters the incentive for businesses to hire or for people to join the labor market and thus affects states’ LFP rates.

We can see the relationship between labor market freedom and labor force participation in the figure below. The figure shows the relationship between the Economic Freedom of North America’s 2013 labor market freedom score (x-axis) and the 2014 labor force participation rate for each state (y-axis).


As shown in the figure there is a positive relationship—more labor market freedom is associated with a higher LFP rate on average. States with lower freedom scores such as Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama also had low LFP rates while states with higher freedom scores such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia had higher LFP rates.

This is not an all-else-equal analysis and other variables—such as demographics and industry composition which I mentioned earlier—also play a role. That being said, state officials concerned about their state’s labor market should think about what they can do to increase labor market freedom—and economic freedom more broadly—in their state.

Eight years after the financial crisis: lessons from the most fiscally distressed cities

You’d think that eight years after the financial crisis, cities would have recovered. Instead, declining tax revenues following the economic downturn paired with growing liabilities have slowed recovery. Some cities exacerbated their situations with poor policy choices. Much could be learned by studying how city officials manage their finances in response to fiscal crises.

Detroit made history in 2013 when it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy after decades of financial struggle. Other cities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California had their own financial battles that also resulted in bankruptcy. Their policy decisions reflect the most extreme responses to fiscal crises.

You could probably count on both hands how many cities file for bankruptcy each year, but this is not an extremely telling statistic as cities often take many other steps to alleviate budget problems and view bankruptcy as a last resort. When times get tough, city officials often reduce payments into their pension systems, raise taxes – or when that doesn’t seem adequate – find themselves cutting services or laying off public workers.

It turns out that many municipalities weathered the 2008 recession without needing to take such extreme actions. Studying how these cities managed to recover more quickly than cities like Stockton provides interesting insight on what courses of action can help city officials better respond to fiscal distress.

A new Mercatus study examines the types of actions that public officials have taken under fiscal distress and then concludes with recommendations that could help future crises from occurring. Their empirical model finds that increased reserves, lower debt, and better tax structures all significantly improve a city’s fiscal health.

The authors, researchers Evgenia Gorina and Craig Maher, define fiscal distress as:

“the condition of local finances that does not permit the government to provide public services and meet its own operating needs to the extent to which these have been provided and met previously.”

In order to determine whether a city or county government is under fiscal distress, the authors study the actual actions taken by city officials between 2007 and 2012. Their approach is unique because it stands in contrast with previous literature that primarily looks to poorly performing financial indicators to measure fiscal distress. An example of such an indicator would be how much cash a government has on hand relative to its liabilities.

Although financial indicators can tell someone a lot about the fiscal condition of their locality, they are only a snapshot of financial resources on hand and don’t provide information on how previous policy choices got them to their current state. A robust analysis of a city’s financial health would require a deeper look. Looking at policy decisions as well as financial indicators can paint a more complete picture of just how financial resources are being managed.

The figure here displays the types of actions, or “fiscal distress episodes”, that the authors of the study found were the most common among cities in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As expected, you’ll see that bankruptcy occurs much less frequently than other courses of action. The top three most common attempts to meet fundamental operating needs and service requirements during times of fiscal distress include (1) large across-the-board budget cuts or cuts in services, (2) blanket reduction in employee salaries, and (3) unusual tax rate or fee increases.


Another thing that becomes clear from this figure is that public workers and taxpayers appear to be adversely affected by the most common fiscal episodes. Cuts in services, reductions in employee salaries, large tax increases, and layoffs all place much of the distress on these groups. By contrast, actions like fund transfers, deferring capital projects, or late budget enactment don’t directly affect public workers or taxpayers (at least in the short term).

I decided to break down how episodes affected public workers and taxpayers for each state examined in the sample. 91% of California’s municipal fiscal distress episodes directly affected public employees or the provision of public services, while the remaining 9% indirectly affected them. Michigan and Pennsylvania followed with 85% and 66% of episodes, respectively, directly affecting public workers or taxpayers through cuts in services, tax increases, or layoffs.

Many of these actions surely happen in tandem with each other in more distressed cities, but it seems that more often than not, the burden falls heavily on public workers and taxpayers.

The city officials who had to make these hard decisions obviously did so under financially and politically intense circumstances; what many, including researchers like Gorina and Maher, consider to be a fiscal crisis. In fact, 32 percent of the communities across the three states in their sample experienced fiscal distress which, on its own, sheds light on the magnitude of the 2007-2009 recession. A large motivator of Gorina and Maher’s research is to understand what characteristics of the cities who more quickly rebounded from the Great Recession allowed them to prevent hitting fiscal crisis stage in the first place.

They do so by testing the effect of a city’s pre-existing fiscal condition on their likelihood to undergo fiscal distress. After controlling for things like government type, size, and local economic factors, they found that cities that had larger reserves and lower debt tended to weather the recession better relative to other cities. More specifically, declining general revenue balance as a percent of general expenditures and increases in debt as a share of total revenue both increase the odds of fiscal distress for a city.

Additionally, the authors found that cities with a greater reliance on property taxes managed to weather the recession better than governments reliant on other revenue sources. This suggests that revenue structure, not just the amount of revenue raised, is an important determinant of fiscal health.

No city wants to end up like Detroit or Scranton. Policymakers in these cities were forced to make hard choices that were politically unpopular; often harming public employees and taxpayers. Officials can look to Gorina and Maher’s research to understand how they can prevent ending up in such dire situations.

When approaching municipal finances, each city’s unique situation should of course be taken into consideration. This requires looking at each city’s economic history and financial practices, similar to what my colleagues have done for Scranton. Combining each city’s financial context with principles of sound financial management can surely help more cities find and maintain a healthy fiscal path.

Privatizing Water Facilities Can Help Cash-Strapped Municipalities

In my latest Forbes piece I discuss water privatization in the U.S. and why it is often a good idea.

“A public-private partnership has several benefits versus a completely public system. First, private firms often operate in many different jurisdictions, which means they have more experience and are able to institute best practices based on their accumulated knowledge.

Second, there is more oversight. The firm has an incentive to provide the specified water quality in order to maintain their business with the city and to avoid being sued for breach of contract. Local government officials can easily monitor the firm since they only need to focus on water quality and availability. If either the government or the firm fail to do their job, the other entity can alert residents.

Third, private companies are often better situated to maintain the infrastructure than public ownership, and public choice analysis helps explain why. Under complete government ownership, rate increases are a political decision rather than a business decision. There is a strong incentive for government officials to keep rates low, especially during election years, since rate increases rarely lead to votes.

Moreover, it’s difficult for politicians to commit to making necessary infrastructure improvements since the deterioration of a city’s water infrastructure is a long process that’s hard for the average voter to notice. A politician can get more votes by allocating tax dollars to conspicuous things like additional policemen or shiny, new fire trucks—it’s hard to trot out a new water main at a campaign rally.”

New York’s Buffalo Billion initiative has been underwhelming

New York’s Buffalo Billion plan has come under fire amidst an ongoing corruption probe looking into whether some contracts were inappropriately awarded to political donors. The investigation has led to funding delays and there are reports of some contractors and companies rethinking their investments. But even without these legal problems, it is unlikely that the Buffalo Billion initiative will remake Buffalo’s economy.

Buffalo, NY has been one of America’s struggling cities since the 1950s, but before then it had a long history of growth. After it became the terminal point of the Erie Canal in 1825 it grew rapidly; over the next 100 years the city’s population went from just under 9,000 to over 570,000. Growth slowed down from 1930 to 1950, and between 1950 and 1960 the city lost nearly 50,000 people. It has been losing population ever since. The Metropolitan Area (MSA), which is the economic city, continued to grow until the 1970s as people left the central city for the surrounding suburbs, but it has also been losing population since then. (click to enlarge figure)


Buffalo’s population decline has not escaped the notice of local, state and federal officials, and billions of dollars in government aid have been given to the area in an effort to halt or reverse its population and economic slide. The newest attempt is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, which promises to give $1 billion of state funds to the region. The investment began in 2013 and as of January 2016, $870.5 million worth of projects have been announced. The table below lists some of the projects, the amount of the investment, and the number of jobs each investment is supposed to create, retain, or induce (includes indirect jobs due to construction and jobs created by subsequent private investment). This information is from the Buffalo Billion Process and Implementation plan (henceforth Buffalo Billion Plan).


The projects listed have been awarded $727 million in direct investment, $150 million in tax breaks and $250 million in other state funds. The total number of jobs related to these investments is 9,900 according to the documentation, for an average cost of $113,859 per job (last column).

However, these jobs numbers are projections, not actual counts. This is one of the main criticisms of investment efforts like Buffalo Billion—a lot of money is spent and a lot of jobs are promised, but rarely does anyone follow up to see if the jobs were actually created. In this case it remains to be seen whether reality will match the promises, but the early signs are not encouraging.

Executives of the first project, SolarCity, which received $750 million of benefits and promised 5,000 jobs in western New York, appear to have already scaled back their promise. One company official recently said that 1,460 jobs will be created in Buffalo, including 500 manufacturing jobs. This is down from 2,000 in the Buffalo Billion Plan, a 27% decrease.

The SolarCity factory is not scheduled to open until June 2017 so there is still time for hiring plans to change. But even if the company eventually creates 5,000 jobs in the area, it is hard to see how that will drastically improve the economy of an MSA of over 1.1 million people. Moreover, page eight of the Buffalo Billion Plan reports that the entire $1 billion is only projected to create 14,000 jobs over the course of 5 years, which is again a relatively small amount for such a large area.

Contrary to the local anecdotes that say otherwise, so far there is little evidence that Buffalo Billion has significantly impacted the local economy. Since the recession, employment in Buffalo and its MSA has barely improved, as shown below (data are from the BLS). There has also been little improvement since 2013 when the Buffalo Billion development plan was released. (City data plotted on the right axis, MSA on the left axis.)


Real wages in both Erie and Niagara County, the two counties that make up the Buffalo MSA, have also been fairly stagnant since the recession, though there is evidence of some improvement since 2013, particularly in Erie County (data are from the BLS). Still, it is hard to separate these small increases in employment and wages from the general recovery that typically occurs after a deep recession.


The goal of the Buffalo Billion is to create a “Big Push” that leads to new industry clusters, such as a green energy cluster anchored by SolarCity and an advanced manufacturing cluster. Unfortunately, grandiose plans to artificially create clusters in older manufacturing cities rarely succeed.

As economist Enrico Moretti notes in his book, The New Geography of Jobs, in order for Big Push policies to succeed they need to attract both workers and firms at the same time. This is hard to do since either workers or firms need to be convinced that the other group will eventually arrive if they make the first move.

If firms relocate but high-skill workers stay away, then the firm has spent scarce resources locating in an area that doesn’t have the workforce it needs. If workers move but firms stay away, then the high-skill workers are left with few employment opportunities. Neither situation is sustainable in the long-run.

The use of targeted incentives to attract firms, as in the aforementioned SolarCity project, has been shown to be an ineffective way to grow a regional economy. While such incentives often help some firms at the expense of others, they do not provide broader benefits to the economy as a whole. The mobile firms attracted by such incentives, called footloose firms, are also likely to leave once the incentives expire, meaning that even if there is a short term boost it will be expensive to maintain since the incentives will have to be renewed.

Also, in order for any business to succeed state and local policies need to support, rather than inhibit, economic growth. New York has one of the worst economic environments according to several different measures: It’s 50th in overall state freedom, 50th in economic freedom, and 49th in state business tax climate. New York does well on some other measures, such as Kauffman’s entrepreneurship rankings, but such results are usually driven by the New York City area, which is an economically vibrant area largely due to historical path dependencies and agglomeration economies. Buffalo, and western New York in general, lacks the same innate and historical advantages and thus has a harder time overcoming the burdensome tax and regulatory policies of state government, which are particularly harmful to the local economies located near state borders.

Buffalo officials can control some things at the local level that will improve their economic environment, such as zoning, business licensing, and local taxes, but in order to achieve robust economic growth the city will likely need better cooperation from state officials.

State and local policy makers often refuse to acknowledge the harm that relatively high-tax, high-regulation environments have on economic growth, and this prevents them from making policy changes that would foster more economic activity. Instead, politicians invest billions of dollars of taxpayer money, often in the form of ineffective targeted incentives to favored firms or industries, with the hope that this time will be different.

Discovering an areas comparative advantage and creating a sustainable industry cluster or clusters requires experimentation, which will likely result in some failures. Local and state governments should create an environment that encourages entrepreneurs to experiment with new products and services in their region, but they shouldn’t be risking taxpayer money picking winners and losers. Creating a low-tax, low-regulation environment that treats all businesses—established and start-up, large and small—the same is a better way to grow an economy than government subsidies to favored firms. Unfortunately the Buffalo Billion project looks like another example of the latter futile strategy.

Economic Freedom, Growth, and What Might Have Been

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Click to enlarge)

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

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


(Click to enlarge)

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

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



More competition can lead to less inequality

Wealth inequality in the United States and many European countries, especially between the richest and the rest, has been a popular topic since Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was published. Piketty and others argue that tax data shows that wealth inequality has increased in the U.S. since the late 1970s, as seen in the figure below from a paper by Emmanuel Saez—Picketty’s frequent co-author— and Gabriel Zucman.


The figure shows the percentage of all U.S. household wealth that is owned by the top 0.1% of households, which as the note explains consists of about 160,000 families. The percentage fell from 25% in the late 1920s to about 7% in the late 1970s and then began to rise. Many people have used this and similar data to argue for higher marginal taxes on the rich and more income redistribution in order to close the wealth gap between the richest and the rest.

While politicians and pundits continue debating what should be done, if anything, about taxes and redistribution, many economists are trying to understand what factors can affect wealth and thus the wealth distribution over time. An important one that is not talked about enough is competition, specifically Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction.

Charles Jones, a professor at Stanford, has discussed the connection between profits and creative destruction and their link with inequality. To help illustrate the connection, Mr. Jones uses the example of an entrepreneur who creates a new phone app. The app’s creator will earn profits over time as the app’s popularity and sales increase. However, her profits will eventually decline due to the process of creative destruction: a newer, better app will hit the market that pulls her customers away from her product, erodes her sales and forces her to adapt or fail. The longer she is able to differentiate her product from others, the longer she will be in business and the more money she will earn. This process is stylized in the figure below.


If the app maintains its popularity for the duration of firm life 1, the entrepreneur will earn profits P1. After that the firm is replaced by a new firm that also exists for firm life 1 and earns profit P1. The longer a firm is able to maintain its product’s uniqueness, the more profit it will earn, as shown by firm life 2: In this case the firm earns profit P2. A lack of competition stretches out a firm’s life cycle since the paucity of substitutes makes it costlier for consumers to switch products if the value of the firm’s product declines.

Higher profits can translate into greater inequality as well, especially if we broaden the discussion to include wages and sole-proprietor income. Maintaining market power for a long period of time by restricting entry not only increases corporate profits, it also allows doctors, lawyers, opticians, and a host of other workers who operate under a licensing regime that restricts entry to earn higher wages than they otherwise would. The higher wages obtained due to state restrictions on healthcare provision, restrictions on providing legal services and state-level occupational licensing can exacerbate inequality at the lower levels of the income distribution as well as the higher levels.

Workers and sole proprietors in the U.S. have been using government to restrict entry into occupations since the country was founded. In the past such restrictions were often drawn on racial or ethnic lines. In their Pulitzer Prize-winning history of New York City, Gotham, historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace write about New York City cartmen in the 1820s:

American-born carters complained to the city fathers that Irish immigrants, who had been licensed during the war [of 1812] while Anglo-Dutchmen were off soldiering, were undercutting established rates and stealing customers. Mayor Colden limited future alien licensing to dirt carting, a field the Irish quickly dominated. When they continued to challenge the Anglo-Americans in other areas, the Society of Cartmen petitioned the Common Council to reaffirm their “ancient privileges”. The municipal government agreed, rejecting calls for the decontrol of carting, as the business and trade of the city depended on in it, and in 1826 the council banned aliens from carting, pawnbroking, and hackney-coach driving; soon all licensed trades were closed to them.

Modern occupational licensing is the legacy of these earlier, successful efforts to protect profits by limiting entry, often of “undesirables”. Today’s occupational licensing is no longer a response to racial or ethnic prejudices, but it has similar results: It protects the earning power of established providers.

Throughout America’s history the economy has been relatively dynamic, and this dynamism has made it difficult for businesses to earn profits for long periods of time; only 12% of the companies on the Fortune 500 in 1955 were still on the list in 2015. In a properly functioning capitalist economy, newer, poorer firms will regularly supplant older, richer firms and this economic churn tempers inequality.

The same churn occurs among the highest echelon of individuals as well. An increasing number of the Forbes 400 are self-made, often from humble beginnings. In 1984, 99 people on the list inherited their fortune and were not actively growing it. By 2014 only 28 people were in the same position. Meanwhile, the percentage of the Forbes 400 who are largely self-made increased from 43% to 69% over the same period.

But this dynamism may be abating and excessive regulation is likely a factor. For example, the rate of new-bank formation from 1990 – 2010 was about 100 banks per year. Since 2010, the rate has fallen to about three per year. Researchers have attributed some of the decline of small banks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which increased compliance costs that disproportionately harm small banks. Fewer banks means less competition and higher prices.

Another recent example of how a lack of competition can increase profits and inequality is EpiPen. The price of EpiPen—a medicine used to treat severe allergic reactions to things like peanuts—has increased dramatically since 2011. This price increase was possible because there are almost no good substitutes for EpiPen, and the lack of substitutes can be attributed to the FDA and other government policies that have insulated EpiPen’s maker, Mylan, from market competition. Meanwhile, the compensation of Mylan’s CEO Heather Bresch increased by 671% from 2007 to 2015. I doubt that Bresch’s compensation would have increased by such a large amount without the profits of EpiPen.

Letting firms and workers compete in the marketplace fosters economic growth and can help dampen inequality. To the extent that wealth inequality is an issue we don’t need more regulation and redistribution to fix it: We need more competition.

Local governments reluctant to issue new debt despite low interest rates

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite historically low interest rates municipal governments and voters don’t have the appetite for new debt. Municipal bond issuances have dropped to 20-year lows (1.6 percent) as governments pass on infrastructure improvements. There are a few reasons for that: weak tax revenues, fewer federal dollars, and competing budgetary pressures. As the article notes,

“Many struggling legislatures and city halls are instead focusing on underfunded employee pensions and rising Medicaid costs. Some cash-strapped areas, such as Puerto Rico and the city of Chicago, face high annual debt payments.”

The pressures governments face due to rising employee benefits is likely to continue. The low interest rate environment has already had a negative effect on public pensions. In pursuit of higher yields, investors have taken on more investment risk leaving plans open to market volatility. At the same time investments in bonds have not yielded much. WSJ reporter Timothy Martin writes that public pension returns are, “expected to drop to the lowest levels ever recorded,” with a 20-year annualized return of 7.4 percent for 2016.

The end result of this slide is to put pressure on municipal and state budgets to make up the difference, sometimes with significant tradeoffs.

The key problem for pensions is “baked into the cake,” by use of improper discounting. Linking the present value of guaranteed liabilities to the expected return on risky investments produces a distortion in how benefits are measured and funded. Public sector pensions got away with it during the market boom years. But in this market and bond environment an arcane actuarial assumption over how to select discount rates shows its centrality to the fiscal stability of governments and the pension plans they provide.

Congestion taxes can make society worse off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

congestion diagram 1

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

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

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

congestion diagram 2

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

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

congestion diagram 3

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

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

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