An upcoming vote in the Kansas Legislature, possibly today, will let Kansans know who is truly in favor of economic freedom, limited government, and free market capitalism — and who favors crony capitalism instead.
The bill is Senate Substitute for HB2382: AN ACT concerning economic development; concerning the STAR bonds financing act; relating to the provisions regarding STAR bond projects; extending the sunset date. Under current law, the Kansas STAR bonds program will expire on July 1, 2012. This bill extends the program’s life for five years.
The STAR bonds program allows increases in sales tax revenue to be directed to private interests rather than feeding the state treasury. The mechanism is that local governments like cities can sell bonds and give the proceeds to developers. Then, increments in sales tax revenues are used to make bond payments.
In economic impact and effect, the STAR bonds program is a government spending program. Except: Like many spending programs implemented through the tax system, legislative appropriations are not required. No one has to vote to spend on a specific project. Can you imagine the legislature voting to grant $50 million over a period of years to a proposed development in northeast Wichita? That doesn’t seem likely. Few members would want to withstand the scrutiny of having voted in favor of such blatant cronyism.
But under stealth-like tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds, that’s exactly what happens — except for the legislative voting part.
Government spending programs like STAR bonds are sold to legislators as jobs programs. Development, it is said, will not happen unless project developers receive incentives through these spending programs. Since no legislator wants to be seen voting against jobs, many are susceptible to the seductive promise of jobs.
But often these same legislators are in favor of tax cuts to create jobs. This is the case in the Kansas House, where many Republican members are in favor of reducing the state’s income tax as a way of creating economic growth and jobs. On this issue, these members are correct.
But many of the same members voted earlier this year for a previous version of the STAR bonds extension bill. (See In Kansas, STAR bonds vote uplifted cronyism over capitalism.) These members voted in favor of a tax expenditure program. These two positions — voting for tax cuts, but voting for targeted spending through the tax system — cannot be reconciled. If government taxing and spending is bad, it is especially bad when part of tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds. And there’s plenty of evidence that government spending and taxation is a drag on the economy.
It’s not just legislators that are holding these incongruous views. Secretary of Commerce Pat George promoted the STAR bonds program to legislators. This seems to be contrary to the spirit of tax reform plans Kansas Governor Sam Brownback promoted earlier in the session. At that time, he proposed ending spending programs implemented through the tax system. Historic preservation tax credits was a particular program that he wanted to end.
The danger of false, or “crony” capitalism
Last year at the time Brownback and a new, purportedly more conservative Kansas House took office, I wondered whether Kansas would pursue a business-friendly or capitalism-friendly path: “Plans for the Kansas Republican Party to make Kansas government more friendly to business run the risk of creating false, or crony capitalism instead of an environment of genuine growth opportunity for all business.” I quoted John Stossel:
The word “capitalism” is used in two contradictory ways. Sometimes it’s used to mean the free market, or laissez faire. Other times it’s used to mean today’s government-guided economy. Logically, “capitalism” can’t be both things. Either markets are free or government controls them. We can’t have it both ways.
The truth is that we don’t have a free market — government regulation and management are pervasive — so it’s misleading to say that “capitalism” caused today’s problems. The free market is innocent.
But it’s fair to say that crony capitalism created the economic mess.
But wait, you may say: Isn’t business and free-market capitalism the same thing? Not at all. Here’s what Milton Friedman had to say: “There’s a widespread belief and common conception that somehow or other business and economics are the same, that those people who are in favor of a free market are also in favor of everything that big business does. And those of us who have defended a free market have, over a long period of time, become accustomed to being called apologists for big business. But nothing could be farther from the truth. There’s a real distinction between being in favor of free markets and being in favor of whatever business does.” (emphasis added.)
Friedman also knew very well of the discipline of free markets and how business will try to avoid it: “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system. Naturally, existing businesses generally prefer to keep out competitors in other ways. That is why the business community, despite its rhetoric, has so often been a major enemy of truly free enterprise.”
The danger of Kansas government having a friendly relationship with Kansas business is that the state will circumvent free markets and promote crony, or false, capitalism in Kansas. It’s something that we need to be on the watch for. The vote on the STAR bonds project will let us know how our state is proceeding. If the upcoming vote goes as did the earlier votes on this matter, the verdict is clear: Kansas legislators — including many purported fiscal conservatives — prefer crony capitalism over free enterprise and genuine capitalism.
Government bureaucrats and politicians promote programs like STAR bonds as targeted investment in our economic future. They believe that they have the ability to select which companies are worthy of public investment, and which are not. It’s a form of centralized planning by the state that shapes the future direction of the Kansas economy.
As Hayek pointed out, knowledge that is important in the economy is dispersed. Consumers understand their own wants and business managers understand their technological opportunities and constraints to a greater degree than they can articulate and to a far greater degree than experts can understand and absorb.
When knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, I call this the knowledge-power discrepancy. Such discrepancies can arise in large firms, where CEOs can fail to appreciate the significance of what is known by some of their subordinates. … With government experts, the knowledge-power discrepancy is particularly acute.
Despite this knowledge problem, Kansas legislators are willing to give power to bureaucrats in the Department of Commerce (along with local government officials and bureaucrats) who feel they have the necessary knowledge to direct the investment of public funds. One thing is for sure: the state and its bureaucrats have the power to make these investments. They just don’t have — they can’t have — the knowledge as to whether these are wise.
What to do
The STAR bonds program is an “active investor” approach to economic development. Its government spending on business leads to taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.
Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”
In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Kansas and many of its cities employ: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”
In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.’”
There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Government spending on specific companies through programs like STAR bonds is an example of precisely the wrong policy.
We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies at all levels of government that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to not act in most circumstances. But politicians have an irresistible urge to be seen doing something, even though most of what is done is harmful.