A company in Wichita requires business welfare in order to capture a new business opportunity. What’s wrong with this picture?
Our local and state economic development regime wanted Sedgwick county commissioners to approve a grant to a company without the commissioners knowing the entire spectrum of benefits the company will receive. Wichita city council members likely would have found themselves in the same position.
But we now know the details of economic development incentives approved and proposed for Triumph Aerospace Systems in Wichita. Press releases from Kansas Department of Commerce and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition didn’t give specifics. But based on the agreement between the Department of Commerce and Triumph, the state will give Triumph $100,000 immediately, and then $25,000 at the end of each of the next two years if job creation targets are met.
This $150,000 is in addition to two forgivable loans of $78,000 each expected to be granted by Sedgwick County and the City of Wichita. (Forgivable loans are like conditional grants. The loan is not repaid as long as targets are met.) That’s a total of $306,000.
This type of economic development action is routine in Wichita and Kansas. But, as measured in a variety of ways, Wichita economic growth and job creation is slow. So we ought to ask a few questions before proceeding.
First, what is wrong with Wichita’s business environment that in order for a company to expand, it must receive business welfare? I realize that “business welfare” is a harsh term. But how else do we describe these grants paid for through taxation?
Second: If there is no problem with Wichita’s business environment, and if these incentives are not necessary for the company to expand, why are we granting them?
Third, how were these amounts determined? Why $306,000? Why not $206,000 or $406,000? If we gave the company a bigger grant, could it hire more people?
Fourth: An analysis performed for Sedgwick County indicates a benefit-cost ratio of 1.31, meaning that for every $1.00 the county invests in this forgivable loan, it expects to receive $1.31. This inspires a question: If we really believe in this benefit to the county (and similar benefits to the city and state), why is the county investing only $78,000? And why doesn’t the county make more investments like this? Surely there are other worthy companies that need capital for expansion. If it really is so easy to induce economic growth and job creation, we should be doing things like this at every county commission meeting. Several times each meeting, I would say.
Fifth: Not all companies that expand receive incentives. How are other companies in Wichita able to expand or start without the aid of incentives?
Finally: A continuing goal in Wichita is to diversify our economy, to reduce the proportion of jobs and income earned in aviation and aerospace. Triumph, the company expanding, is in that industry. It’s not bad that the company is expanding. But the costs of these incentives are a burden to other companies that are starting and trying to establish themselves. Instead of diversifying our economy, this action further concentrates our economic base in a way that is deemed undesirable. Was this considered when evaluating this incentive opportunity versus others?
I’m just asking.
What to do, and not to do
Politicians and bureaucrats promote programs like these grants 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 Wichita and Kansas economy.
These targeted economic development efforts fail for several reasons. First is the knowledge problem, in that government simply does not know which companies are worthy of public investment. This lack of knowledge, however, does not stop governments from creating policies for the awarding of incentives. This “active investor” approach to economic development is what has led to companies receiving grants or escaping hundreds of millions in taxes — 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: “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. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRBs 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 Wichita City Hall, at the Sedgwick County Commission, and at the Kansas Statehouse — 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 say, to not act in most circumstances.