It’s harmful when citizens are not armed with information and research. But when government officials and bureaucrats with the power to tax and plan our economies are uninformed, people suffer as our economy becomes less prosperous than it could be.
Today, in the name of creating jobs, the Sedgwick County Commission voted in favor of granting an economic development incentive to an expanding Wichita manufacturing firm. Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against the award.
The action taken today is in addition to an award by the State of Kansas, and another likely to be awarded by the Wichita City Council. See Why is business welfare necessary in Wichita? for more background.
Intervention in the economy such as this does more harm than good, as we’ll see in a moment. It’s important that we learn the facts about incentives like these, as the Wichita area has the potential to become even more dependent on incentives and subsidies as a way of economic development.
For example, the president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition recently broadcast an email with the subject heading “Investor Alert: WBJ outlines Mars Deal Development Incentives as one example of Aggressive Competition.” The email read as follows:
You are well aware of the Mars deal in Topeka and you are likely aware that no city outside the greater Kansas City Metro Area was given the opportunity to bid this project.
In my mind the take away from this Wichita Business Journal article is that our competition — local, state and international — have enormous tools to ensure economic development success.
The Mars project has the potential to receive $9.1 million in local incentives over the next five years not including the property tax abatement estimated at $10.0M.
Messages like this — that we don’t have enough tools to compete — are common in Wichita. Politicians like Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer call for devoted revenue streams to fund economic development incentives.
What, though, is the track record of incentives? Those who, like myself, call for an end to their use: Don’t we want people to have jobs?
We need to decide what to believe. Should we believe our own eyes — that is, what we can easily see or are being told by our leaders — or something else?
Here’s a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.
Ambrosius (1989). National study of development incentives, 1969 — 1985.
Finding: No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment, thus suggesting that tax incentives were ineffective.
Trogan (1999). National study of state economic growth and development programs, 1979 — 1995.
Finding: General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).
Gabe and Kraybill (2002). 366 Ohio firms, 1993 — 1995.
Finding: Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives.
Fox and Murray (2004). Panel study of impacts of entry by 109 large firms in the 1980s.
Finding: No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy.
Edmiston (2004). Panel study of large firm entrance in Georgia, 1984 — 1998
Finding: Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%), and thus tax incentives are unlikely to be efficacious.
Hicks (2004). Panel study of gaming casinos in 15 counties (matched to 15 non-gambling counties).
Finding: No employment or income impacts associated with the opening of a large gambling facility. There is significant employment adjustment across industries.
LaFaive and Hicks (2005). Panel study of Michigan’s MEGA tax incentives, 1995 — 2004.
Finding: Tax incentives had no impact on targeted industries (wholesale and manufacturing), but did lead to a transient increase in construction employment at the cost of roughly $125,000 per job.
Hicks (2007a). Panel study of California’s EDA grants to Wal-Mart in the 1990s.
Finding: The receipt of a grant did increase the likelihood that Wal-Mart would locate within a county (about $1.2 million generated a 1% increase in the probability a county would receive a new Wal-Mart), but this had no effect on retail employment overall.
Hicks (2007b). Panel study of entry by large retailer (Cabela’s).
Finding: No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores from 1998 to 2003.
(Based on Figure 8.1: Empirical Studies of Large Firm Impacts and Tax Incentive Efficacy, in Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It, Russell S. Sobel, editor. Available here.)
In discussing this research, the authors of Unleashing Capitalism explained:
Two important empirical questions are at the heart of the debate over targeted tax incentives. The first is whether or not tax incentives actually influence firms’ location choices. The second, and perhaps more important question, is whether, in combination with firms’ location decisions, tax incentives actually lead to improved local economic performance.
We begin by noting that businesses do, in fact, seem to be responsive to state and local economic development incentives. … All of the aforementioned studies, which find business location decisions to be favorably influenced by targeted tax incentives, also conclude that the benefits to the communities that offered them were less than their costs.
So yes, business firms are influenced by incentives. But the cost of the incentives is greater than the benefit. This research shows, over and over, that the cost-benefit ratio analysis that decision makers use is not meaningful or reliable.
So why do we use incentives? Why do so few in government or the public understand? Continuing from Unleashing Capitalism:
Given serious doubts about the efficacy of tax incentives, why are they so popular? The answer is that businesses looking to expand their plants or to move to new locations have strong incentives to lobby for tax breaks and other subsidies that add to owners’ profits and, moreover, encouraging a bidding war between two or more state or local governments promises to increase the value of the incentives they can extract from any one of them. Politicians interested in re-election, in turn, have strong incentives to respond to private firms’ self-serving subsidy demands in order to take credit for enticing a high-profile company to town or to avoid blame for the jobs that would be lost if an existing employer moved to another location. The politicians will be supported on the tax-incentive issue by other groups having immediate financial stakes in the process, including local real estate developers, investment bankers (who float public bond issues and arrange financing for the incoming firm), and economic development officials whose livelihoods depend on success in chasing after ornaments to add to the local or state economy.
The special interests of subsidy-seeking private firms dominate the political process because voter-taxpayers are only weakly motivated to become informed about the costs of tax incentive programs and to organize in opposition to them. They see the jobs “created” at a new plant; they do not see the jobs that are lost elsewhere in the economy as a result of the higher tax burden imposed on other businesses and as a result of the economic resources reallocated from productive activities toward lobbying government to obtain these favors. Nor can they readily see the higher future tax bill they themselves will be required to pay in order to amortize and service the public debt issued to finance the subsidies diverted into the pockets of the owners of politically influential private companies.
“Politicians interested in re-election.” This describes almost all elected officials.
“Economic development officials whose livelihoods depend on success in chasing after ornaments.” This is Tim Chase and the other members of the economic development regime in Wichita.
Today, in explaining his vote in favor of granting a target economic development incentive, Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh recognized a “certain pragmatism that is required here.” He said we’re really concerned about jobs, and that jobs is the number one priority. Sometimes creating jobs requires us, he said, to compete in the practical world. It would be better if there were no incentives, he said. “But the truth of the matter is that we have to sometimes provide incentives, subsidies, abatements, whatever category it falls in, in order to compete and secure the jobs and company that we’re trying to win.”
This is the standard argument, even of politically liberal members of commissions and councils. Jobs, jobs, jobs. We don’t like to use incentives — they all say this, especially conservatives — but we learned that we must use incentives if we want jobs. This embrace of pragmatism is called “maturing in office.”
But I would ask these officials like Unruh this question: What about all the research that says incentives do more harm to jobs than good?
What do Commissioners Unruh, Skelton, and Norton believe phrases like these mean?
“No evidence of incentive impact on manufacturing value-added or unemployment”
“Small reduction in employment by businesses which received Ohio’s tax incentives”
“No evidence of large firm impacts on local economy”
“No permanent employment increase across a quasi-experimental panel of all Cabela’s stores”
“Employment impact of large firms is less than gross job creation (by about 70%)”
These research programs illustrate the fallacy of the seen and the unseen. It is easy to see the jobs being created by economic development incentives. I do not deny that jobs are created at firms that receive incentives, at least most of the time. But these jobs are easy to see, and government makes sure we see them. We’re going to endure the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. It’s easy for news reporters to find the newly-hired and grateful workers, or to show video footage of a new manufacturing plant.
But it’s very difficult to find specific instances of the harm that government intervention produces. It is, generally, dispersed. People who lose their jobs usually don’t know the root cause of why they are now unemployed. Businesses whose sales decline often can’t figure out why.
But uncontroverted evidences tells us this is true: These incentives, along with other forms of government interventionism, do more harm than good.
We can understand the average citizen being susceptible to arguments make by the likes of GWEDC’s Chase and the three Sedgwick county commissioners that voted for this incentive. Citizens generally don’t have the education, the time, and the initiative to evaluate these matters.
But for economic development professionals and elected officials with the power to tax and spend? Not knowing this research is inexcusable, and ignoring it is deplorable.