Tag Archives: Capitalism

Kansas economic development programs

Explaining common economic development programs in Kansas.

TIF projects: Some background
Tax increment financing disrupts the usual flow of tax dollars, routing funds away from cash-strapped cities, counties, and schools back to the TIF-financed development. TIF creates distortions in the way cities develop, and researchers find that the use of TIF means lower economic growth. Click here.

Tax increment financing (TIF) resources
Resources on tax increment financing (TIF) districts. Click here.

STAR bonds in Kansas
The Kansas STAR bonds program provides a mechanism for spending by autopilot, without specific appropriation by the legislature. Click here.

Industrial Revenue Bonds in Kansas
Industrial Revenue Bonds are a mechanism that Kansas cities and counties use to allow companies to avoid paying property and sales taxes. Click here.

Community Improvement Districts in Kansas
In Kansas Community Improvement Districts, merchants charge additional sales tax for the benefit of the property owners, instead of the general public. Click here.

In Kansas, PEAK has a leak
A Kansas economic development incentive program is pitched as being self-funded, but is probably a drain on the state treasure nonetheless. Click here.

Government intervention may produce unwanted incentives
A Kansas economic development incentive program has the potential to alter hiring practices for reasons not related to applicants’ job qualifications. Click here.

Small and weak government?

Do corporations prefer the marketplace or a large and powerful government?

A letter in the Wichita Eagle criticized the marketplace and the power that corporations purportedly hold over it. (Government needed, February 28, 2016). This letter refers to an op-ed by Charles Koch (Charles G. Koch: Sanders and I agree on a few issues, February 19, 2016, originally published in the Washington Post)

A few remarks:

The letter-writer states: “It was also no surprise to read that his solution is very small and weak government.” Reading the Koch op-ed to which the letter-writer refers, I didn’t see a call for weak government. Generally, libertarians favor a limited government that is strong in protecting our rights and liberties and exercising the enumerated powers outlined in the Constitution. A limited government is very different from a weak government.

The letter-writer states: “The very, very rich people and corporations do not check themselves. The marketplace system they embrace as the sole solution encourages the accumulation of more and more wealth and power — and using that power to accumulate more wealth.” With a few exceptions, corporations do not embrace the marketplace, if by marketplace the writer means a system of free markets. Instead, as Charles Koch correctly notes, most corporations seek to constrain and limit the power of free markets. Milton Friedman diagnosed the situation correctly: “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.”

It’s difficult to do the things that Friedman says business must do in a market economy — innovate, be customer-focused, and be efficient. It’s far easier to hire lobbyists at the federal, state, and local levels to gain an advantage over your competitors. The harm of this system of cronyism is explained by Koch: “Perversely, this regulatory burden falls hardest on small companies, innovators and the poor, while benefiting many large companies like ours. This unfairly benefits established firms and penalizes new entrants, contributing to a two-tiered society.” It is government, not markets, that are creating two tiers of society.

Another complaint of the writer is that the rich “fund the multitude of foundations and university professors to pitch their philosophy attacking public schools and other public services.” Well, some rich people do, and thank goodness for them. If not for the generosity of Koch and a few others in founding organizations like The Cato Institute, there might be few sources of information besides a self-serving government or those who benefit from an expansive, meddling government. The latter are the corporations that the letter-writer complains use the marketplace to gain more wealth and power, but in reality are using government to do this.

As far as funding university professors, this serves as a useful and valuable check to the multitudes of taxpayer-funded public university professors who indoctrinate and condition students to embrace more government. Shouldn’t college students be exposed to a variety of views? That doesn’t seem to be what students are receiving: “Academics, on average, lean to the left. A survey being released today suggests that they are moving even more in that direction. Among full-time faculty members at four-year colleges and universities, the percentage identifying as ‘far left’ or liberal has increased notably in the last three years, while the percentage identifying in three other political categories has declined.” (Moving Further to the Left, Inside Higher Ed, October 24, 2012)

Reforming economic development in Wichita

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Can we reform economic development in Wichita to give us the growth we need? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast May 10, 2015.

Continue reading Reforming economic development in Wichita

Wichita officials, newspaper, just don’t get it on Ex-Im Bank

Wichita’s establishment prefers cronyism over capitalism.

It’s not surprising that companies that benefit from Export-Import Bank loans support its renewal. We can understand groups like the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce campaigning for the bank, as the Chamber is a special interest group that advocates for its members to the detriment of capitalism.

But we ought to expect more from the editorial board of the Wichita Eagle and Wichita city government officials. But the shiny object before them keeps them from seeing the harm of government programs like the Ex-Im Bank.

Ex-Im Bank by the Numbers

  • In 2013, 93% of Ex-Im loan guarantees went to just five major corporations.
  • From 2009-2013, the bank supported less than two percent of total U.S. exports
  • Based on CBO estimates, Ex-Im will cost taxpayers $2 billion over the next ten years
  • Between 2007-2014, there were 792 reported claims of fraud and 124 investigations launched into Ex-Im Bank
  • From 2010 to 2014, 66 years of prison sentences were handed down to corrupt employees of Ex-Im and its beneficiaries.
Wichita city tweet expressing approval of renewal of Export-Import Bank.
Wichita city tweet expressing approval of renewal of Export-Import Bank.

Wichita Chamber calls for more cronyism

By advocating for revival of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce continues its advocacy for more business welfare, more taxes, more wasteful government spending, and more cronyism.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsThat may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes,1 2 more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.

Email to Wichita Chamber of Commerce supporters (excerpt).
Email to Wichita Chamber of Commerce supporters (excerpt).
Now the Wichita Chamber is asking members to lobby Kansas representatives in support of the revival of the Export-Import Bank. In an email (read here), the Wichita Chamber speaks approvingly of a maneuver executed successfully in the United States House of Representatives that will force a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. The method used, a discharge petition, was signed by well over a majority of House members, including perhaps 42 Republicans. If the petition signers vote the same way, the bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank will pass the House. It will then move to the Senate for consideration.

No members of the House of Representatives from Kansas signed the discharge petition. In July a vote on an amendment in favor of the Ex-Im Bank passed with 67 votes, including votes from both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.

Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Business groups and government agencies usually favor Ex-Im. Business groups — as distinguished from capitalism. Free-market and capitalism advocacy groups are almost universally opposed.

In testimony to Congress on this matter, The Cato Institute providwed this:

The Export-Import Bank’s main functions of providing loan guarantees, insurance, and direct loans that benefit U.S. exporters are typically justified by Ex-Im Bank’s mission of providing that support when there are instances of “market failure” — i.e., when the private market does not provide those services on its own — or subsidized export finance that benefits foreign competitors. I hope to show that in neither instance is the Ex-Im Bank’s support called for.

Proponents of continued funding for the Ex-Im Bank often cite figures of export-related jobs created by Ex-Im’s finance to claim that the agency benefits the U.S. economy. The opportunity costs, or costs to the rest of the economy, of funding Ex-Im Bank’s activities are, however, never cited. By this logic, we are led to believe that the government export program is virtually cost-free or even provides a net economic gain.

The reality is much different, particularly since the market is a far more efficient allocator of resources than government. While it may be true that the export agency helps a few businesses — only about 2 percent of all U.S. goods and services exports are backed by the Ex-Im Bank — it is highly doubtful that the agency helps the U.S. economy. Indeed, as one Congressional Research Service study noted, “Most economists doubt … that a nation can improve its welfare over the long run by subsidizing exports. Internal economic policies ultimately determine the overall level of a nation’s exports… . By providing financing or insurance for exporters, Ex-Im Bank’s activities draw from the financial resources within the economy that would be available for other uses. Such opportunity costs, while impossible to estimate, potentially could be significant.”

Put another way, the Export-Import Bank is an example of corporate welfare. It benefits a small number of private businesses at the expense of other businesses and taxpaying citizens. That is true even if the agency does not lose money. …

Conclusion

The Export-Import Bank is a New Deal era agency with no relevance in a liberal global economy. It has not helped cause U.S. prosperity, but has certainly imposed opportunity costs larger than any alleged benefits; it has not corrected so-called market failures, but has rewarded foreign countries for failing to adopt market-oriented policies and institutions; and it affects such a small percentage of U.S. exports that even in the face of foreign nations’ wrong-headed, export-finance programs, the “playing field” already seems to favor U.S. businesses. The most important reason, however, that the Export-Import Bank’s charter should not be reauthorized is that it is neither morally correct nor constitutional for the federal government to use general taxpayer money to promote the economic welfare of specific groups.

A statement from Americans for Prosperity read:

Members are right to be frustrated with this attempt to sidestep regular order, especially to revive a defunct institution that represents the worst of Beltway crony capitalism. It’s unfortunate that some are determined not to take even a modest step toward restoring free markets or getting out of the business of special interest deals. Signing this discharge petition is an attempt to bring an inherently corrupt institution back from the dead, and it means siding with corporate lobbyists over taxpayers. Abandoning free-market principles is wrong, but trying to do it with a procedural gimmick just adds insult to injury.

FreedomWorks issued this:

This July, an 80-year-old corporate welfare program known as the U.S. Export-Import Bank was allowed to expire for the first time since its inception. Created by FDR as part of his New Deal, the bank offers taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to companies unable to secure independent financing — in other words, loans too risky for private investors to be willing to finance.

It’s a ridiculous and obsolete program, and while its cost is small in the grand scheme of government spending — $2 billion over years — the difficulty with which it was finally defunded shows the extreme disproportionate influence of special interests in Washington. When conservatives finally succeeded in stopping the Bank’s funding, it was regarded as a huge victory for the opponents of corporate cronyism, proof of the concept that we can stop, or at least roll back, the leviathan if we could only muster the political will. …

It’s cynical in the extreme for politicians to try to sneak this corporate handout past the voters, and anyone who supports the reauthorization should be ashamed of themselves. FreedomWorks has preemptively issued a Key Vote NO on any bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, and will count those votes on our legislative scorecard.

Heritage Foundation has an excellent discussion of the issues at Export–Import Bank: Propaganda versus the Facts.

  1. Weeks, B. (2015). Wichita Chamber speaks on county spending and taxes. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: wichitaliberty.org/sedgwick-county-government/wichita-chamber-speaks-on-county-spending-and-taxes
  2. Weeks, B. (2014). For Wichita Chamber of Commerce chair, it’s sales tax for you, but not for me. Voice For Liberty in Wichita. Available at: wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-chamber-commerce-chair-sales-tax

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s regulations and economic development

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do Wichita’s many laws and regulations accomplish their goals? Then, are Wichita’s economic development policies likely to work? Episode 98, broadcast October 18, 2015. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube.

Export-Import Bank threatens a revival

Last week members of the United States House of Representatives successfully executed a maneuver that will force a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The method used, a discharge petition, was signed by well over a majority of House members, including perhaps 42 Republicans. If the petition signers vote the same way, the bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank will pass the House. It will then move to the Senate for consideration.

No members of the House of Representatives from Kansas signed the discharge petition. In July a vote on an amendment in favor of the Ex-Im Bank passed with 67 votes, including votes from both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.

Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Wichita governmental agencies favor the Export-Import Bank.
Business groups and government agencies usually favor Ex-Im. Business — as distinguished from capitalism. Free-market and capitalism advocacy groups are almost universally opposed. A statement from Americans for Prosperity read:

Members are right to be frustrated with this attempt to sidestep regular order, especially to revive a defunct institution that represents the worst of Beltway crony capitalism. It’s unfortunate that some are determined not to take even a modest step toward restoring free markets or getting out of the business of special interest deals. Signing this discharge petition is an attempt to bring an inherently corrupt institution back from the dead, and it means siding with corporate lobbyists over taxpayers. Abandoning free-market principles is wrong, but trying to do it with a procedural gimmick just adds insult to injury.

FreedomWorks issued this:

This July, an 80-year-old corporate welfare program known as the U.S. Export-Import Bank was allowed to expire for the first time since its inception. Created by FDR as part of his New Deal, the bank offers taxpayer-backed loan guarantees to companies unable to secure independent financing — in other words, loans too risky for private investors to be willing to finance.

It’s a ridiculous and obsolete program, and while its cost is small in the grand scheme of government spending — $2 billion over years — the difficulty with which it was finally defunded shows the extreme disproportionate influence of special interests in Washington. When conservatives finally succeeded in stopping the Bank’s funding, it was regarded as a huge victory for the opponents of corporate cronyism, proof of the concept that we can stop, or at least roll back, the leviathan if we could only muster the political will. …

It’s cynical in the extreme for politicians to try to sneak this corporate handout past the voters, and anyone who supports the reauthorization should be ashamed of themselves. FreedomWorks has preemptively issued a Key Vote NO on any bill to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank, and will count those votes on our legislative scorecard.

Heritage Foundation has an excellent discussion of the issues at Export–Import Bank: Propaganda versus the Facts.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Jeffrey Tucker and ‘Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World’

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Jeffrey Tucker talks about his most recent book “Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World” and how Bitcoin and other distributed technologies are affecting the world. View below, or click here to watch in high definition at YouTube. Episode 97, broadcast October 4, 2015.

Tucker’s website is www.jeffreytucker.me. The book’s page at Amazon is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Liberty.me is here.

Does Kansas have its own Solyndra?

Does Kansas have its own version of Solyndra, the politically-connected firm that failed and cost taxpayers some $535 million? We don’t know. But the Abengoa cellulosic ethanol plant near Hugoton received a $132.4 million loan guarantee under the same program that benefited Solyndra.

In January I requested documents regarding the Abengoa loan guarantee and risk assessment from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. But after nine months: nothing. Following, from October 2011, more information about this plant.

At this moment, we can’t say that Kansas has its own version of Solyndra, the subsidized and politically-connected solar energy firm that recently shut down its operations and declared bankruptcy. But as far as absorbing the important lessons from Solyndra, we may have another chance to learn them in Kansas.

Solyndra is a failure in several ways. Much money was lost. It may be that corrupt or criminal activity was involved; we don’t know that yet. It appears that Solyndra will be a useful political scandal for Republicans to exploit, especially in the upcoming election campaign against the president. We can be sure that Republicans will keep us informed on this.

But the largest and most important lesson from Solyndra is one that many politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — don’t want to recognize: Government intervention in the economy is wrong for the health of the country.

The problem is that when government intervenes in the economy, it almost always gets it wrong. It’s not that Obama and other politicians aren’t smart. It’s the problems inherent in government interventionism: There will be both routine and spectacular examples of waste, as people — politicians and bureaucrats, especially — are not spending their own money. Decisions will be made to benefit the well-connected and for political, not market-based reasons. Cronyism and corruption flourish, as many will find it easier to compete in the marketplace for politicians rather than in the free market where fickle consumers rule with their fleeting tastes and preferences.

But politicians and bureaucrats love to intervene. For bureaucrats, intervention — government programs, that is — provides jobs, and well-paid jobs, too. Since much government intervention in the economy is in the form of subsidies, it allows politicians to dispense other peoples’ money and take credit for having “created” jobs or having built a bridge, probably to be named for them later on.

Other government intervention is in the form of creating unneeded regulations or tax loopholes that favor politicians’ friends or harm their competition.

All of this means that economic activity is directed according to political, not economic, considerations. It’s wasteful. It’s harmful. It diminishes market-based investment, that is, investment made according to what people really want and need. It reduces the freedom, liberty, and prosperity of everyone.

Back to Kansas: Last week the Department of Energy announced the award of a $132.4 million loan guarantee to Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, LLC. This is the same federal agency and the same loan guarantee program involved in the Solyndra matter. The difference is that it’s an even newer so-called green energy technology involved: cellulosic ethanol production.

The plant in Kansas is to be at Hugoton, in southwest Kansas. The press release from DOE promotes the number of jobs that will be created.

Cellulosic ethanol is produced from plant material that is usually considered waste, such as corn stalks or wheat straw. That’s different from the usual input to ethanol production in America, which is corn that would otherwise be used as animal or human food. Because of this, cellulosic ethanol is thought of by many as the “silver bullet” that will dramatically improve the path of America’s energy future. That may be the case, or it may not be. Because of the reasons listed above, government is particularly unsuited to make that decision and to participate in the scientific and entrepreneurial experimentation that will produce the answer.

At one time President George W. Bush praised the potential of this fuel. A Reuters analysis from July opens with: “The great promise of a car fuel made from cheap, clean-burning prairie grass or wood chips — and not from expensive corn that feeds the world — is more mirage than reality. Despite years of research, testing and some hype, the next-generation ethanol industry is far from the commercial success envisioned by President George W. Bush in 2006, when he pledged so-called cellulosic biofuels would be ‘practical and competitive’ by 2012.”

That hints at the problem: despite much effort, scientists haven’t been able to demonstrate cellulosic ethanol production on a commercially-successful scale. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of this summer, no commercial cellulosic ethanol has been produced.

The loan guarantee is not the only form of government subsidy and boost ethanol producers received. There is a tax credit for each gallon produced and a tariff that protects producers from cheaper imported ethanol.

Despite these very large measures of government intervention, cellulosic ethanol backers blame the government for lack of progress in the industry, citing the government’s failure to mandate production levels and provide assurances that the industry would receive subsidies. And the loan guarantees are not made fast enough, they add to the list of complaints. An analysis by ClimateWire that appeared in the New York Times in January had industry boosters blaming the federal Department of Energy for its slow pace in issuing loan guarantees.

We won’t know the success or failure of the Abengoa plant in Kansas for some time, and now we taxpayers are placed in the position of hoping that it succeeds. But it has the pedigree of a government plan to correct a perceived market failure, and that’s a danger sign.

Both Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have spoken approvingly of this plant despite the government intervention involved; Moran in a statement after the announcement, and Roberts in previous years as plans were being made. U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who represents the district where the plant is located, has not commented on this plant, and offered no comment for this story.

Wichita’s WaterWalk apartment deal

From August 2012, an episode of cronyism in Wichita.

On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider the type of taxpayer-funded giveaway that voters have shown they don’t like. How council members vote may set the stage for city elections next March and April.

Tuesday’s item involves a proposed apartment development on the west bank of the Arkansas River across from the downtown WaterWalk development. The apartment developer is WaterWalk LLC, whose manager is Jack P. DeBoer.

The highlights of the deal include:

1. The lease of 4.4 acres of city-owned land for $1 per year, for the next 93 years. City documents say the land is valued by Sedgwick County at $479,000. The city paid $919,695 to acquire the land in 1994 and 1995. It’s listed as for sale with an asking price of $1,153,344. The city is, however, asking the apartment developer to pay the full $93 in advance.

2. Development of an amphitheater, which was part of the WaterWalk master plan. Originally planned to be just west of WaterWalk Place, the condominium development on Main Street, the amphitheater will now be implemented as a floating stage in the Arkansas River. A $247,500 Economic Development Initiative (EDI) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will pay for a portion of the cost. Tuesday’s agenda item asks authorization to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for this stage.

Besides the sweetheart land lease, there are two other components of this deal that are troubling. One will undoubtedly be presented to city council members and the public as a big benefit to taxpayers, something that will actually profit the city. This is a provision that requires the apartment developer to pay “Additional Annual Rent.” Under this concept, each year the apartment developer will calculate “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” and remit 25 percent of that to the city.

To the casual observer, this seems like a magnanimous gesture by the apartment developer. It makes it look like the city has been a tough negotiator, hammering out a good deal for the city, letting citizens profit along with the apartment developer.

But the definition of cash flow includes a comprehensive list of expenses the may be deducted, including the cost of repaying any loans. There’s also an allowable expense called “Tenant Development Cost Return,” which is the apartment developer’s profit. The agreement defines this profit as 20 percent, and it’s deducted as part of the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow.”

If there is ever any money left over after the dedication of all these expenses and profit margin, I will be surprised. Shocked, even. Here’s one reason why. One of the allowable deductions that goes into the computation of “Adjusted Net Cash Flow” is, according to city documents: “Amounts paid into any capital, furniture, fixture, equipment or other reserve.” There’s no restriction as to how much can be funneled into these reserve accounts. We can be sure that if this project was ever in the position where it looked like it might have to remit “Additional Annual Rent” to the city, contributions to these reserve funds would rise. Then, no funds paid to the city.

This is an example of the city appearing to be concerned for the welfare of taxpayers. In reality, this concept of “Additional Annual Rent” is worse than meaningless. It borders on deception.

Then, there’s this: The city has agreed to allow its ownership of the land (remember, the city is leasing the land to the apartment developer) to be subordinated to other debt the apartment developer may take on, such as the mortgage that will certainly be obtained. This means that if the apartment complex doesn’t succeed and there is foreclosure, the lender takes ownership of the city’s land.

Last week the city council passed a revision to its economic development policy that states that economic development incentives should have a cost-benefit ratio of at least 1.3 to one. No such number is given for this project.

Waterwalk, a problematic development

This deal is another chapter in the history of the troubled WaterWalk development. So far, WaterWalk has received some $41 million in public spending, and we have little to show for that investment.

Three years ago the Wichita Eagle editorialized: “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.” When our newspaper’s editorial board is critical of a government spending project in downtown Wichita, that’s a red letter day.

In 2009, after DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, the Wichita Eagle reported: “‘I’m not going down to City Hall with my hand out,’ DeBoer said. ‘I can’t. The city has put their money in it, and I’m happy with that. We’ve put a lot of our own money in and that’s OK. Now, time to deliver.'”

Leasing land worth $479,000 or $1,153,344 for one dollar per year: To me, that smells like a handout. It doesn’t sound like delivering on promises.

Around the time DeBoer took over the management of WaterWalk, Wichita city manager Robert Layton said no more public money would be put in to WaterWalk, according to Eagle reporting. Later he said those remarks were misinterpreted, with the Eagle reporting “[Layton] said the city won’t spend more on infrastructure, and that specific developments would be analyzed case by case to make sure they offer a return on investment for taxpayers and fit with the master plan.”

Wichita, home to cronyism

Measures like the city council will consider on Tuesday are what leads to cynicism regarding city government. It reinforces that notion that there is a network of insiders — the “good ol’ boy network” — that gets what it wants from city staff and officeholders. This deal — the sweetheart land giveaway, the deceptive appearance of profit sharing, the subordination of the city’s interests — doesn’t generate prosperity for Wichita and citizen confidence in its government. Instead, this deal contributes to the stench of cronyism that permeates and infests Wichita City Hall.

Two recent elections have shown that Wichitans don’t much care for this culture of giveaways to the politically connected class. People don’t like crony capitalism. They know it doesn’t work. The city defends these giveaways by saying they create jobs. But Wichita economic development is failing. Our city is not doing well, in spite of all the money spent on economic development efforts.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “good ol’ boy” network of insiders exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections?

Last year Charles Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, wrote in the pages of the Wall Street Journal this regarding cronyism: “Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.”

WaterWalk and Jack DeBoer have already received generous financial assistance ($41 million) from the taxpayers of Wichita. That the city would consider even one dollar more is a scandal.

Amendments to Wichita WaterWalk Developer Agreements

Intellectuals vs. the rest of us

Why are so many opposed to private property and free exchange — capitalism, in other words — in favor of large-scale government interventionism? Lack of knowledge, or ignorance, is one answer, but there is another. From August 2013.

brain-diagram-cartoonAt a recent educational meeting I attended, someone asked the question: Why doesn’t everyone believe what we (most of the people attending) believe: that private property and free exchange — capitalism, in other words — are superior to government intervention and control over the economy?

It’s question that I’ve asked at conferences I’ve attended. The most hopeful answer is ignorance. While that may seem a harsh word to use, ignorance is simply a “state of being uninformed.” That can be cured by education. This is the reason for this website. This is the reason why I and others testify in favor of free markets and against government intervention. It is the reason why John Todd gives out hundreds of copies of I, Pencil, purchased at his own expense.

But there is another explanation, and one that is less hopeful. There is an intellectual class in our society that benefits mightily from government. This class also believes that their cause is moral, that they are anointed, as Thomas Sowell explains in The vision of the anointed: self-congratulation as a basis for social policy: “What all these highly disparate crusades have in common is their moral exaltation of the anointed above others, who are to have their very different views nullified and superseded by the views of the anointed, imposed via the power of government.”

Murray N. Rothbard explains further the role of the intellectual class in the first chapter of For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, titled “The Libertarian Heritage: The American Revolution and Classical Liberalism.” Since most intellectuals favor government over a market economy and work towards that end, what do the intellectuals get? “In exchange for spreading this message to the public, the new breed of intellectuals was rewarded with jobs and prestige as apologists for the New Order and as planners and regulators of the newly cartelized economy and society.”

There it is: Planners and regulators. We have plenty of these at all levels of government, and these are prime examples of the intellectual class. Is it any wonder that the locus of centralized planning in south-central Kansas — sustainable communities — is at a government university?

As Rothbard explains, intellectuals have cleverly altered the very meaning of words to suit their needs:

One of the ways that the new statist intellectuals did their work was to change the meaning of old labels, and therefore to manipulate in the minds of the public the emotional connotations attached to such labels. For example, the laissez-faire libertarians had long been known as “liberals,” and the purest and most militant of them as “radicals”; they had also been known as “progressives” because they were the ones in tune with industrial progress, the spread of liberty, and the rise in living standards of consumers. The new breed of statist academics and intellectuals appropriated to themselves the words “liberal” and “progressive,” and successfully managed to tar their laissez- faire opponents with the charge of being old-fashioned, “Neanderthal,” and “reactionary.” Even the name “conservative” was pinned on the classical liberals. And, as we have seen, the new statists were able to appropriate the concept of “reason” as well.

We see this at work in Wichita, where those who advocate for capitalism and free markets instead of government intervention are called, in the case of Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and Wichita Eagle editorial writer Rhonda Holman, “naysayers.”

The sad realization is that as government has extended its reach into so many areas of our lives, to advocate for liberty instead of government intervention is to oppose many things that people have accepted as commonplace or inevitable. To advocate that free people should trade voluntarily with other free people — instead of forming a plan for them — is to be dismissed as “not serious.”

Rothbard further explains the role of intellectuals in promoting what they see as the goodness of expansive government:

Throughout the ages, the emperor has had a series of pseudo-clothes provided for him by the nation’s intellectual caste. In past centuries, the intellectuals informed the public that the State or its rulers were divine, or at least clothed in divine authority, and therefore what might look to the naive and untutored eye as despotism, mass murder, and theft on a grand scale was only the divine working its benign and mysterious ways in the body politic. In recent decades, as the divine sanction has worn a bit threadbare, the emperor’s “court intellectuals” have spun ever more sophisticated apologia: informing the public that what the government does is for the “common good” and the “public welfare,” that the process of taxation-and-spending works through the mysterious process of the “multiplier” to keep the economy on an even keel, and that, in any case, a wide variety of governmental “services” could not possibly be performed by citizens acting voluntarily on the market or in society. All of this the libertarian denies: he sees the various apologia as fraudulent means of obtaining public support for the State’s rule, and he insists that whatever services the government actually performs could be supplied far more efficiently and far more morally by private and cooperative enterprise.

The libertarian therefore considers one of his prime educational tasks is to spread the demystification and desanctification of the State among its hapless subjects. His task is to demonstrate repeatedly and in depth that not only the emperor but even the “democratic” State has no clothes; that all governments subsist by exploitive rule over the public; and that such rule is the reverse of objective necessity. He strives to show that the very existence of taxation and the State necessarily sets up a class division between the exploiting rulers and the exploited ruled. He seeks to show that the task of the court intellectuals who have always supported the State has ever been to weave mystification in order to induce the public to accept State rule, and that these intellectuals obtain, in return, a share in the power and pelf extracted by the rulers from their deluded subjects.

And so the alliance between state and intellectual is formed. The intellectuals are usually rewarded quite handsomely by the state for their subservience, writes Rothbard:

The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the State and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the State incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security. Furthermore, intellectuals are needed to staff the bureaucracy and to “plan” the economy and society.

The “material security,” measured in dollars, can be pretty good, as shown by these examples: The Wichita city manager is paid $185,000, the Sedgwick county manager is paid $175,095, and the superintendent of the Wichita school district is paid $224,910.

Wichita Chamber speaks on county spending and taxes

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce urges spending over fiscally sound policies and tax restraint in Sedgwick County.

Today the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce issued a “key vote” alert. This procedure, used by political groups of all persuasions, alerts elected officials that the Chamber prefers a certain outcome on an issue. Those who vote in harmony with the Chamber are likely to receive support in their next election, while the noncompliant are implicitly threatened with opponents the Chamber will support.

Here’s what the Chamber sent to commissioners:

From: Barby Jobe
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 2:47 PM

TO: SEDGWICK COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

FROM: WALTER BERRY, Vice Chair, Wichita Metro Chamber Government Relations Committee

RE: KEY VOTE ALERT

While we have not recently had many “key votes” at the local level, the Wichita Metro Chamber would like to alert you that we will be key voting the 2016 Budget.

The Chamber would like to encourage the Commission to consider a compromise by leaving the property tax rate as it is currently and reducing the amount of cash-funded roads thus allowing a reallocation of funds for economic development and education, culture and recreation, city partnerships, and health and human services.

Thank you for your consideration.

Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city's 2012 Performance Measure Report
Wichita Pavement Condition Index, from the city’s 2012 Performance Measure Report
It’s unclear precisely what the Wichita Chamber is asking commissioners to do. It seems likely the Chamber is asking for support of “Plan C.” That is the plan drafted by commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh, which proposes deferring road maintenance in order to free funds for current spending. That plan sets the county on the course chosen by the city of Wichita some years ago. That is, defer maintenance on streets and other infrastructure to support current spending. That policy lead to declining quality of streets and a large backlog of other maintenance, with a recent report from the city finding that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is an additional $45 to $55 million per year.

This deferral of maintenance needs is a form of deficit spending. It’s curious that a purportedly conservative organization like the Wichita Chamber of Commerce would support that.

Well, it’s not really surprising. The Wichita Chamber has long advocated for more taxation and spending, taking the lead in promoting the one cent per dollar sales tax proposal in Wichita last year. The Chamber has supported big-spending Republicans over fiscal conservatives for office at several levels.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttonsIn Wichita, and across the country, local chambers of commerce support crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

That may be surprising to read. Most people probably think that local chambers of commerce — since their membership is mostly business firms — support pro-growth policies that embrace limited government and free markets. But that’s usually not the case. It’s certainly is not the case in Wichita, where the Chamber supports higher taxes, more government spending, more business welfare, more government planning and control, more cronyism — and less economic freedom. The predictable result is less prosperity, which has been the case in Wichita under the leadership of the Wichita Chamber, its policies, and the politicians and bureaucrats it supports.

Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” economist Stephen Moore — formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now with Heritage Foundation — explains the decline of the local chamber of commerce:

The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda — but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They’re becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, “Rip-Off,” “state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

In the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other “tax eater” entities.

“I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions,” says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself ‘the business community’ and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations.”

From Stephen Moore in the article “Tax Chambers” published in The Wall Street Journal February 10, 2007. The complete article is here.

In Wichita, benefitting from your sales taxes, but not paying their own

A Wichita real estate development benefits from the sales taxes you pay, but doesn’t want to pay themselves.

STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
In Kansas, the STAR bond program allows cities to issue bonds (that is, to borrow money), give the proceeds (that is, cash) to a private business firm, and then pay off the bonds with the sales taxes paid by the business firm’s customers.

But sometimes this gift by taxpayers isn’t sufficient. In Wichita, despite benefitting from STAR bonds, a company wishes to skip paying sales taxes itself. This is what the Wichita City Council will consider tomorrow.

The Wichita Sports Forum (WSF) project on North Greenwich Road, according to city documents, is a project with a cost of $14,025,000. Of that, $7,525,000 (53.6 percent) may be paid for by the STAR bonds. These bonds will be paid off at no cost to the owners of WSF.

Additionally, according to city documents, the STAR bonds program carries with it a sales tax exemption. That is, if any of the bond proceeds are spent on items subject to sales tax (like building materials), WSF doesn’t pay the sales tax.

There’s another consideration, however. Some of the project is being paid for by the developers themselves rather than by STAR bonds. Stuff purchased with their money will be subject to sales tax. Evidently that is a problem, and the city has a way to step in and solve it.

Through the Industrial Revenue Bonds program, the WSF developers can avoid paying sales tax on $4,500,000 of building materials. City documents don’t mention this number, but with the sales tax rate in Wichita at 7.5 percent, this is a savings of $337,500. It’s as good as a grant of cash. Better, in fact. If the city granted this cash, it would be taxable as income. But forgiveness of taxes isn’t considered income.

In Kansas, low-income families must pay sales tax on their groceries, and at a rate that is among the highest in the country. Is it unseemly that having already benefited from millions in taxpayer subsidy and sales tax exemption, the developers of Wichita Sports Forum seek even more sales tax exemptions?

The real free lunch: Markets and private property

As we approach another birthday of Milton Friedman, here’s his article where he clears up the authorship of a famous aphorism, and explains how to really get a free lunch. Based on remarks at the banquet celebrating the opening of the Cato Institute’s new building, Washington, May 1993.

I am delighted to be here on the occasion of the opening of the Cato headquarters. It is a beautiful building and a real tribute to the intellectual influence of Ed Crane and his associates.

I have sometimes been associated with the aphorism “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which I did not invent. I wish more attention were paid to one that I did invent, and that I think is particularly appropriate in this city, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” But all aphorisms are half-truths. One of our favorite family pursuits on long drives is to try to find the opposites of aphorisms. For example, “History never repeats itself,” but “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Or “Look before you leap,” but “He who hesitates is lost.” The opposite of “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is clearly “The best things in life are free.”

And in the real economic world, there is a free lunch, an extraordinary free lunch, and that free lunch is free markets and private property. Why is it that on one side of an arbitrary line there was East Germany and on the other side there was West Germany with such a different level of prosperity? It was because West Germany had a system of largely free, private markets — a free lunch. The same free lunch explains the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China, and the prosperity of the United States and Great Britain. These free lunches have been the product of a set of invisible institutions that, as F. A. Hayek emphasized, are a product of human action but not of human intention.

Continue reading The real free lunch: Markets and private property

Friedman: Laws that do harm

As we approach another birthday of Milton Friedman, here’s his column from Newsweek in 1982 that explains that despite good intentions, the result of government intervention often harms those it is intended to help.

There is a sure-fire way to predict the consequences of a government social program adopted to achieve worthy ends. Find out what the well-meaning, public-interested persons who advocated its adoption expected it to accomplish. Then reverse those expectations. You will have an accurate prediction of actual results.

To illustrate on the broadest level, idealists from Marx to Lenin and the subsequent fellow travelers claimed that communism would enhance both freedom and prosperity and lead to the “withering away of the state.” We all know the results in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China: misery, slavery and a more powerful and all-encompassing government than the world had ever seen.

Continue reading Friedman: Laws that do harm

Are you in the top 1%?

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that they are, in fact, in the top one percent of income — when the entire world is considered. It is economic freedom in America that has been responsible for this high standard of living. But America’s ranking among the countries in economic freedom has declined, and may fall further.

View the 60-second video at Economic Freedom in 60 Seconds, or click below.

More government spending is not a source of prosperity

Kansas needs to trim state government spending so that its economy may grow by harnessing the benefits of the private sector over government.

In the debate over how to balance the Kansas budget, those who oppose low state taxes say the burden of taxation is simply transferred to other sources, usually in the form of sales and property taxes. Cutting spending is the other possibility, but it is argued that state spending is a good thing, a source of prosperity that Kansas should exploit.

The idea that government spending is a generator of wealth and prosperity is true for only a certain minimal level of spending. We benefit from government provision of things like national defense, public safety, and a court system. But once government grows beyond these minimal core functions, it is markets — that is, free people trading in the private sector — that can produce a wider variety of better goods and services at lower cost.

Those who call for more government spending seem to fail to realize spending has a cost, and someone has to pay. They see the salary paid to a government worker and say that money gets spent, thereby producing economic activity and jobs. But what is the source of the government worker’s salary? It is money taken from someone through taxation. By necessity, money spent on government reduces the private sector economic activity of those who paid the taxes. (At the federal level, government also spends by borrowing or creating inflation. Kansas can’t do this.)

If this loss was economically equivalent to the gain, we might be less concerned. But there is a huge cost in taxation and government inefficiency that makes government spending a negative-sum proposition.

Another fundamental problem with government taxation and spending is that it is not voluntary. In markets, people voluntarily trade with each other because they feel it will make them better off. That’s not the case with government. I do not pay my taxes because I feel doing so makes me better off, other than for that small part that goes to the basic core functions. Instead, I pay my taxes so that I can stay out of jail. This fundamentally coercive method of generating revenue for government gets things off to a bad start.

Then, ask how that money is spent. Who decides, and how? Jeffrey A. Miron explains: “The political process, alas, does not lend itself to objective balancing of costs and benefits. Most programs benefit well-defined interest groups (the elderly, teachers unions, environmentalists, defense contractors) while imposing relatively small costs per person on everyone else. Thus the winners from excess spending fight harder than the losers, and spending far exceeds the level suggested by cost-benefit considerations.” 1

An example in Kansas is the special interest group that benefits from highway construction. They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

As Miron explained, groups like this will spend almost limitlessly in order to receive appropriations from the government. It’s easier than competing in markets for customers and business. It’s perhaps the largest problem with government spending: Decisions are made by a few centralized actors who are subject to intense lobbying by special interests. It is the well-known problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. 2

Some argue that without government spending, certain types of goods and services will not be provided. A commonly cited example is education, which accounts for about half of Kansas general fund spending. Would there be schools if not for government? Of course there would be. There are many non-government schools now, even though those who patronize them must first pay for the government schools before paying for their own schools. And there were many schools and educated, literate Americans before government decided it need to monopolize education.

Still, it is argued that government spending on education is needed because everyone benefits from an educated citizenry. Tom G. Palmer explains: “Thus, widespread education generates public benefits beyond the benefits to the persons who are educated, allegedly justifying state provision and financing through general tax revenues. But despite the benefits to others, which may be great or small, the benefits to the persons educated are so great for them that they induce sufficient investment in education. Public benefits don’t always generate the defection of free-riders.”

Those who still argue that government spending in education is for the good of everyone will also need to defend the sagging and declining performance of public schools. They need to persuade us that government schools are producing an educated citizenry. They need to defend the capture of Kansas spending on schools by special interest groups that benefit from this spending. They actually do a pretty good job of this, which illustrates the lengths to which special interest groups will go. In Kansas, they throw children under the bus.

Back to the basics: Government spending as economic booster is the theory of the Keynesians, including the administration of Barack Obama. Miron, from the same article cited above, explains the problems with this:

That brings us to the second argument for higher spending: the Keynesian claim that spending stimulates the economy. If this is accurate, it might seem the U.S. should continue its high-spending ways until the recession is over.

But the Keynesian argument for spending is also problematic. To begin with, the Keynesian view implies that any spending — whether for vital infrastructure or bridges to nowhere — is equally good at stimulating the economy. This might be true in the short term (emphasis on might), but it cannot be true over the long haul, and many “temporary” programs last for decades. So stimulus spending should be for good projects, not “digging ditches,” yet the number of good projects is small given how much is already being spent.

More broadly, the Keynesian model of the economy relies on strong assumptions, so we should not embrace it without empirical confirmation. In fact, economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy.

Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments — attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure — work better when they focus on tax cuts. This does not fit the Keynesian view, but it makes perfect sense given that high taxes and ill-justified spending make the economy less productive.

The implication is that the U.S. may not face a tradeoff between shrinking the deficit and fighting the recession: it can do both by cutting wasteful spending (Medicare, Social Security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for starters) and by cutting taxes.

The reduced spending will make the economy more productive by scaling government back to appropriate levels. Lower tax rates will stimulate in the short run by improving consumer and firm liquidity, and they will enhance economic growth in the long run by improving the incentives to work, save, and invest.

Deficits will therefore shrink and the economy will boom. The rest of the world will gladly hold our debt. The U.S. will re-emerge as a beacon of small government and robust capitalism, so foreign investment (and talented people, if immigration policy allows) will come flooding in.

In Kansas, we need to scale back government to appropriate levels, as Miron recommends. That means cutting spending. That will allow us to maintain low tax rates, starting with the income tax. Then we in Kansas can start to correct the long record of sub-par economic performance compared to other states and bring prosperity and jobs here.

  1. Cato Institute, 2010. ‘Slash Expenditure To Balance The Budget’. Accessed April 28 2015. http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/slash-expenditure-balance-budget.
  2. David Boaz: “Economists call this the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. The benefits of any government program — Medicare, teachers’ pensions, a new highway, a tariff — are concentrated on a relatively small number of people. But the costs are diffused over millions of consumers or taxpayers. So the beneficiaries, who stand to gain a great deal from a new program or lose a great deal from the elimination of a program, have a strong incentive to monitor the news, write their legislator, make political contributions, attend town halls, and otherwise work to protect the program. But each taxpayer, who pays little for each program, has much less incentive to get involved in the political process or even to vote.”

No-bid contracts still passed by Wichita city council

Despite a policy change, the Wichita city council still votes for no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayer funds.

In the current campaign for Wichita mayor, one candidates says he never has voted for no-bid contracts: “[Longwell] also takes issue with the claim he has ever voted for any no-bid contract, something he says his voting record will back up. ‘That’s the beauty of having a voting record,’ he says.” Mayoral candidate Williams decries ‘crony capitalism’ of critics, Wichita Business Journal, March 12, 2015

We don’t have to look very hard to find an example that contradicts Longwell’s claim of never voting for a no-bid contract. Minutes from the August 9, 2011 meeting of the city council show that there was discussion about the no-bid contract for the garage benefiting the Ambassador Hotel. Then-council member Michael O’Donnell questioned if the city was getting the best deal for taxpayers, since the garage was to be built with public funds. O’Donnell was told that the no-bid contract was at “the developer’s request.” These developers include principals and executives of Key Construction and Dave Burk, all who have been generous and consistent funders of Longwell’s campaigns.

But we don’t have to go back that far to find voting for no-bid contracts paid for with taxpayer funds. Longwell has voted several times in favor of the Exchange Place project, starting when it was a project of the Minnesota Guys. The latest such vote was on March 3, 2015, when Longwell voted in favor of a project that contained this benefit, according to city documents: “The City will also provide TIF funding in an amount not to exceed $12,500,000 for the acquisition of land and construction of the parking structure.”

This garage, to be paid for through public funds, was not competitively bid. Despite the garage being pitched as a public good, most parking spaces are for the exclusive benefit of Exchange Place.

Impetus for change

The votes by Longwell and others for no-bid contracts sparked the city manager to ask for a change in policy. The Wichita Eagle reported in 2012:

The days of awarding construction projects without taking competitive bids might be numbered at City Hall if City Manager Robert Layton has his way, especially with public projects such as parking garages that are part of private commercial development.

Layton said last week that he intends to ask the City Council for a policy change against those no-bid contracts.

Three years later, Longwell and others are still voting to spend taxpayer funds on no-bid contracts.


Minutes from August 8, 2011 meeting

Council Member O’Donnell stated and we will not being going out to bid to find the best
deal on that and are just awarding.

Allen Bell Urban Development Director stated that is the developer’s request. Council Member O’Donnell asked if that is City precedent and that with a government project in the tune of $6 million dollars, does not have to be sent out for bid?

Gary Rebenstorf Director of Law stated we have Charter Ordinance No. 203 that has been adopted by the City Council, which provides a procedure to exempt these types of projects from the bidding requirements from the City and has to meet certain requirements in order for it to be used by the Council. Stated the most significant is that there has to be a public hearing and has to be a 2/3 vote by the Council to approve this development agreement that sets up this type of project.

Council Member O’Donnell stated he is glad the media is here to pick up on that because he thinks that $6 million dollars is a lot of money and to just award that to a contractor that has special ties to campaign finance reports of everyone on the City Council except himself, seems questionable.

A Wichita Shocker, redux

Based on events in Wichita, the Wall Street Journal wrote “What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful …” But Wichita’s elites don’t seem to understand this.

A Wichita ShockerThree years ago from today the Wall Street Journal noted something it thought remarkable: a “voter revolt” in Wichita. Citizens overturned a decision by the Wichita City Council regarding an economic development incentive awarded to a downtown hotel. It was the ninth layer of subsidy for the hotel, and because of our laws, it was the only subsidy that citizens could contest through a referendum process.

In its op-ed, the Journal wrote:

The elites are stunned, but they shouldn’t be. The core issue is fairness — and not of the soak-the-rich kind that President Obama practices. One of the leaders of the opposition, Derrick Sontag, director of Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, says that what infuriated voters was the veneer of “political cronyism.”

What Americans seem to want most from government these days is equal treatment. They increasingly realize that powerful government nearly always helps the powerful, whether the beneficiaries are a union that can carve a sweet deal as part of an auto bailout or corporations that can hire lobbyists to write a tax loophole.

The “elites” referred to include the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the political class, and the city newspaper. Since then, the influence of these elites has declined. Last year all three campaigned for a sales tax increase in Wichita, but voters rejected it by a large margin. It seems that voters are increasingly aware of the cronyism of the elites and the harm it causes the Wichita-area economy.

Last year as part of the campaign for the higher sales tax the Wichita Chamber admitted that Wichita lags in job creation. The other elites agreed. But none took responsibility for having managed the Wichita economy into the dumpster. Even today the local economic development agency — which is a subsidiary of the Wichita Chamber — seeks to shift blame instead of realizing the need for reform. The city council still layers on the levels of subsidy for its cronies.

Following, from March 2012:

A Wichita shocker

“Local politicians like to get in bed with local business, and taxpayers are usually the losers. So three cheers for a voter revolt in Wichita, Kansas last week that shows such sweetheart deals can be defeated.” So starts today’s Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook editorial (subscription required), taking notice of the special election last week in Wichita.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is one of the most prominent voices for free markets and limited government in America. Over and over Journal editors expose crony capitalism and corporate welfare schemes, and they waste few words in condemning these harmful practices.

The three Republican members of the Wichita City Council who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but nonetheless voted for the corporate welfare that voters rejected — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita), James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), and Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) — need to consider this a wake up call. These members, it should be noted, routinely vote in concert with the Democrats and liberals on the council.

For good measure, we should note that Sedgwick County Commission Republicans Dave Unruh and Jim Skelton routinely — but not always — vote for these crony capitalist measures.

The Wichita business community, headed by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce endorsed this measure, too.

Hopefully this election will convince Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders that our economic development policies are not working. Combined with the startling findings by a Tax Foundation and KMPG study that finds Kansas lags near the bottom of the states in tax costs to business, the need for reform of our spending and taxing practices couldn’t be more evident. It is now up to our leaders to find within themselves the capability to change — or we all shall suffer.

STAR bonds in Kansas

The Kansas STAR bonds program provides a mechanism for spending by autopilot, without specific appropriation by the legislature.

Under the State of Kansas STAR bonds program, cities sell bonds and turn over the proceeds to a developer of a project. As bond payments become due, incremental sales tax revenue make the payments.

STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
STAR bonds in Kansas. Click for larger version.
It’s only the increment in sales tax that is eligible to be diverted to bond payments. This increment is calculated by first determining a base level of sales for the district. Then, as new development comes online — or as sales rise at existing merchants — the increased sales tax over the base is diverted to pay the STAR bonds.

Often the STAR bonds district, before formation, is vacant land, and therefore has produced no sales tax revenue. Further, the district often has the same boundaries as the proposed development. Thus, advocates often argue that the bonds pay for themselves. Advocates often make the additional case that without the STAR bonds, there would be no development, and therefore no sales tax revenue. Diverting sales tax revenue back to the development really has no cost, they say, as nothing was going to happen but for the bonds.

This is not always the case, For a STAR bonds district in northeast Wichita, the time period used to determine the base level of sales tax was February 2011 through January 2012. A new Cabela’s store opened in March 2012, and it’s located in the boundaries of STAR bonds district, even though it is not part of the new development. Since Cabela’s sales during the period used to calculate the base period was $0, the store’s entire sales tax collections will be used to benefit the STAR bonds developer.

(There are a few minor exceptions, such as the special CID tax Cabela’s collects for its own benefit.)

Which begs the question: Why is the Cabela’s store included in the boundaries of the STAR bonds district?

With sales estimated at $35 million per year at this Cabela’s store, the state has been receiving around $2 million per year in sales tax from it. But after the STAR bonds are sold, that money won’t be flowing to the state. Instead, it will be used to pay off bonds that benefit the STAR bond project’s developer — the project across the street.

Taxation for public or private benefit?
STAR bonds should be opposed as they turn over taxation to the private sector. We should look at taxation as a way for government to raise funds to pay for services that all people benefit from. An example is police and fire protection. Even people who are opposed to taxation rationalize paying taxes that way.

But STAR bonds turn tax policy over to the private sector for personal benefit. The money is collected under the pretense of government authority, but it is collected for the exclusive benefit of the owners of property in the STAR bonds district.

Citizens should be asking this: Why do we need taxation, if we excuse some from participating in the system?

Another question: In the words of the Kansas Department of Commerce, the STAR bonds program offers “municipalities the opportunity to issue bonds to finance the development of major commercial, entertainment and tourism areas and use the sales tax revenue generated by the development to pay off the bonds.” This description, while generally true, is not accurate. The northeast Wichita STAR bonds district includes much area beyond the borders of the proposed development, including a Super Target store, a new Cabela’s store, and much vacant ground that will probably be developed as retail. The increment in sales taxes from these stores — present and future — goes to the STAR bond developer. As we’ve seen, since the Cabela’s store did not exist during the time the base level of sales was determined, all of its sales count towards the increment.

STAR bonds versus capitalism
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 $5 million per year 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 tax expenditure programs like STAR bonds, that’s exactly what happens — except for the legislative voting part, and the accountability that (sometimes) follows.

Government spending programs like STAR bonds are sold to legislators and city council members as jobs programs. Development and jobs, it is said, will not appear unless project developers receive incentives through these spending programs. Since no politician 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 most Republican members voted to 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 in favor of tax expenditure programs like the STAR bonds program. These two positions 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. Governor Sam Brownback supported the program.

When 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 existence of the STAR bonds program lets us know that a majority of Kansas legislators — including many purported fiscal conservatives — prefer crony capitalism over free enterprise and genuine capitalism.

The problem

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.

Arnold King has written about the ability of government experts to decide what investments should be made with public funds. There’s a problem with knowledge and power:

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 and politicians on city councils who feel they have the necessary knowledge to direct the investment of public funds. One thing is for sure: the state and its bureaucrats and politicians 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 say, to not act in most circumstances.