Economic development incentives questioned

When the New York Times is concerned about the cost of government spending programs, it’s a safe bet that things are really out of control. Its recent feature As Companies Seek Tax Deals, Governments Pay High Price reports on economic development incentive programs that are costly and produce questionable benefits.

Do we know the cost of economic development incentives? No, reports the Times: “A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.”

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback appears in a video that accompanies the story.

A concern of the newspaper is that the money spent on incentives could be spent on other government programs, primarily schools. My concern is that government spending on incentives is harmful to the economy. It redirects capital from productive to unproductive uses. Charles Koch recently explained:

Today, many governments give special treatment to a favored few businesses that eagerly accept those favors. This is the essence of cronyism.

Many businesses with unpopular products or inefficient production find it much easier to curry the favor of a few influential politicians or a government agency than to compete in the open market.

After all, the government can literally guarantee customers and profitability by mandating the use of certain products, subsidizing production or providing protection from more efficient competitors.

Cronyism enables favored companies to reap huge financial rewards, leaving the rest of us — customers and competitors alike — worse off.

In another article Koch wrote: “Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

We must distinguish between business and capitalism and hold business groups accountable when they fail to promote economic freedom and capitalism. An example is the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Its legislative platform reads “The Wichita Metro Chamber believes the State should practice fiscal discipline.”

But the Chamber recommends retaining several business welfare programs that are harmful to capitalism and economic freedom.

Next week the agenda for the meeting of the Wichita City Council contains six items that dish out business welfare and promote cronyism. Another item recommends approval of the city’s legislative agenda, which contains this:

ISSUE: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

RECOMMEND: The Wichita City Council supports continuation of its 2012 legislative agenda item, calling for protection of existing economic development tools for local public-private partnerships. Among those are Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), Industrial Revenue Bonds (IRBs) and Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bonds.

The premise is false twice: These economic development tools are not “essential,” and Wichita is not growing and prospering, compared to other cities: “The inflation-adjusted gross domestic product for the Wichita metro area declined 0.4 percent in 2010, according to initial estimates from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The decline slowed from the year before, when this measure of economic growth plummeted by 7.7 percent. … Wichita’s decline came even as GDP grew by 2.5 percent nationwide in 2010. GDP increased in 304 of 366 metro areas nationwide.” (Wichita Business Journal, Wichita’s real GDP declined in 2010 amid national recovery, database shows.)


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