Tag Archives: Capitalism

Wichita not good for small business

The Wichita Business Journal reports today:

When it comes to having good conditions to support small businesses, well, Wichita isn’t exactly at the top of the list, according to a new ranking from The Business Journals.

In fact, the Wichita metro area’s small-business vitality score is nearly at the bottom — 99th out of the 101 U.S. metro areas included in the study. (Wichita near bottom for small-business vitality score, April 2, 2014)

Many in Wichita don’t want to recognize and confront the bad news about the performance of the Wichita-area economy. Last year, when presenting its annual report to local governmental bodies, the leaders of Visioneering Wichita would not present benchmark data to elected officials.

wichita-peer-job-growth-1990-2014-01

So what is the record of the Wichita metropolitan area regarding job creation, that seeming to be the most popular statistic our leaders cite and promote? I’ve prepared statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor for Wichita and a broad group of peer cities. I included our Visioneering peer cities, cities that Visioneers traveled to on official visits, and a few others. The result, shown nearby, is not pretty. (Click on charts for larger versions, or click here to use the interactive visualization)

wichita-peer-job-growth-2007-2014-01

If we look at job creation starting in 1990, Wichita lags behind our Visioneering peers, but not behind all the peer cities that I selected. Wichita does better than Springfield, Illinois, for example. I chose to include that as a peer metropolitan area because that’s the immediate past city that Gary Plummer worked in. He was president of that city’s Chamber of Commerce, and is now president of the Wichita Chamber. Note the position of Springfield: Last place.

In next-to-last place we see Wichita Falls, Texas. I chose to include it because it is the immediate past home of Tim Chase. He was the head of Wichita Falls Economic Development Corporation. He’s now president of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development for the Wichita area.

In second-to-last place we see Pittsburgh, which I added because Visioneering leaders recently made a visit there.

Then, we come to Wichita.

If we look at job creation since 2007 we find Wichita in a common position: Last place in job creation, and by a wide margin except for two cities. One is Wichita Falls, where our present GWEDC president recently worked. The other city that barely out-performs Wichita is Chattanooga, which I included because Visioneering civic leaders recently traveled there to learn from that city.

Over the decades in which Wichita has performed poorly, there have been a few common threads. Carl Brewer has been council member or mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for decades. At Sedgwick County, manager William Buchanan has held that position for more than two decades. On the Sedgwick County Commission, Dave Unruh has been in office since 2003, and Tim Norton since 2001. It is these officials who have presided over the dismal record of Wichita.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s becoming part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

toolbox-29058_640

These leaders often complain that Wichita does not have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete with other cities in economic development. Wichita does, however, have and use incentives. The State of Kansas regularly offers incentives so generous that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Incentives: We have them. They haven’t worked for us.

It is nearly certain that this year Wichitans will be asked to approve a higher sales tax in order to pay for many things, including the more aggressive approach to job creation that Brewer mentioned. Based on the track record of our elected officials and bureaucrats, we need to do this: Before approving the tax and expenditures, Wichitans need to take a long look at the people who have been in charge, and ask what will be different going forward.

Corporate cronyism harms America

As the Wichita Business Journal features an interview with Charles Koch today, here’s a repeat of his article from September 2012 in which he address many of the same topics as covered in the WBJ interview.

“The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

The editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal by Charles G. Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries contains many powerful arguments against the rise of cronyism. The argument above is just one of many.

In his article, Koch makes an important observation when he defines cronyism: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.”

“Rent-seeking” was always a difficult term to use and understand. It had meaning mostly to economists. But “cronyism” — everyone knows what that means. It is a harsh word, offensive to many elected officials. But we need a harsh term to accurately describe the harm caused, as Koch writes: “This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

The entire article is available at the Wall Street Journal. Koch has also contributed other articles on this topic, see Charles G. Koch: Why Koch Industries is speaking out and Charles Koch: The importance of economic freedom.

Charles G. Koch: Corporate Cronyism Harms America

When businesses feed at the federal trough, they threaten public support for business and free markets.

By Charles G. Koch

“We didn’t build this business — somebody else did.”

So reads a sign outside a small roadside craft store in Utah. The message is clearly tongue-in-cheek. But if it hung next to the corporate offices of some of our nation’s big financial institutions or auto makers, there would be no irony in the message at all.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the role of American business is increasingly vilified or viewed with skepticism. In a Rasmussen poll conducted this year, 68% of voters said they “believe government and big business work together against the rest of us.”

Businesses have failed to make the case that government policy — not business greed — has caused many of our current problems. To understand the dreadful condition of our economy, look no further than mandates such as the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “affordable housing” quotas, directives such as the Community Reinvestment Act, and the Federal Reserve’s artificial, below-market interest-rate policy.

Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.

With partisan rhetoric on the rise this election season, it’s important to remind ourselves of what the role of business in a free society really is — and even more important, what it is not.

Continue reading at The Wall Street Journal

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

As landlord, Wichita has a few issues

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

Located across the street from the Transit Center, the city-owned garage on William Street suffers from maintenance issues that diminish its value for its intended use: retail space.

Commercial retail space owned by the City of Wichita in a desirable downtown location was built to be rented. But most is vacant, and maintenance issues go unresolved.

At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the present state of the property should cause us to be wary of government economic development efforts.

As reported by the Wichita Eagle twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:

The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.

Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”

Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.

(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14 today)

What has been the results of the city’s venture into commercial real estate? As can be seen in this video from September, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office had moved to another location. Now, Wichita Festivals occupies some of the space, but much is still empty.

Rusted awnings near retail space in the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita,

Rusted awnings near retail space in the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita,

Inspecting the building last September, I found that this city-owned property had maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. As can be seen in the nearby photos taken this week (click them for larger versions), maintenance hasn’t improved in the nearly six months since then. Maybe that’s why there’s apparently little demand to rent this space.

At the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita, a duct tape repair is still in use after six months.

At the city-owned garage on William Street in Wichita, a duct tape repair is still in use after six months.

It’s not as though the building has many of advantages that city planners tell us are needed for a vital downtown Wichita. There are hundreds of state employees parking in the garage each workday. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area. Its Walk Score — a measure promoted by city planners — is 71, which is deemed “Very Walkable.”

Considering all the advantages this government-owned property has, it’s failing. It’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace city bureaucrats.

Click image for larger version.

American economy is more competitive and carbon-efficient, says economist

Stephen Moore. Credit: Willis Bretz/Heritage Foundation

Stephen Moore. Credit: Willis Bretz/Heritage Foundation

The oil and gas boom in America boosts our competitiveness in the world economy while at the same time reducing carbon emissions, says economist Stephen Moore.

Moore recently left the Wall Street Journal to accept a position at Heritage Foundation as chief economist. He presented to an audience at a conference titled “The Tax & Regulatory Impact on Industry, Jobs & The Economy, and Consumers” produced by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

A large portion of his presentation was on energy and its important role in the economy, and how radical environmentalists — the “green” movement — are harming our economy and people. An irony, he said, is that while President Barack Obama is in the “hip pocket” of radical environmentalists, he is presiding over the greatest oil and gas boom in American history. This boom is proceeding in spite of government, not because of it.

Moore emphasized the importance of energy costs to low-income people. Rising energy costs are like taxes on them, he said, while the wealthy can more easily absorb higher energy costs. “To be green is to be against capitalism, against progress, against poor people, against jobs.”

The boom in oil and gas production in America, made possible by horizontal drilling and fracking, is ahead of the rest of the world. While European countries have in the past embraced green energy technologies, these policies have failed, and the countries are retreating from them. Now, European countries want to use American drilling technologies, he said.

The lower electricity prices in America are a competitive advantage over Europe and China. German auto manufacturers are shutting plants in Europe and moving them to the United States, he said.

Of radical environmentalist groups. Moore said: “They don’t even care about global warming. If they really cared about global warming, they would be cheerleading fracking. Because fracking is making natural gas the new fuel for America. And guess what? Natural gas emits less carbon. It’s a great antidote to global warming.”

(According to the U.S. Energy information Administration, when generating electricity, coal emits from 2.08 to 2.18 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour electricity generated. Natural gas emits 1.22 pounds, or about 43 percent less carbon dioxide.)

Moore went on to tell the attendees that it is the United States that has reduced its carbon emissions the greatest amount in the last five years. He said this is remarkable in light of the fact that the U.S. didn’t sign the Kyoto Treaty, the U.S. didn’t implement cap-and-trade, and didn’t implement a carbon tax. “You would think these environmental groups would be applauding natural gas. Now these environmentalist groups have a new campaign called ‘beyond natural gas,’” he said.

Moore explained that at first, environmentalists said they could accept natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to solar power and wind. They were in favor of natural gas, he said, up until the time it became cheap and plentiful. Now, they are against gas. “My point is, the left and environmentalists are against any energy source that works.”

Over the past six years the U.S. has spent $100 billion promoting wind and solar power, but these two sources together account for just 2.2 percent of electricity generation. Even if the country were to quadruple the portion of electricity generated by these two renewable sources over the next 10 to 20 years, the nation would still need to get 90 percent of its electricity from other sources. Moore was doubtful that the country could quadruple the output from wind and solar.

Trends in carbon emissions

To further investigate the topics Moore raised, I gathered data from Global Carbon Atlas and prepared interactive visualizations using Tableau Public. You may access and use the visualizations by clicking here. Following are static excerpts from the visualizations. Click on each image for a larger version.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

Looking at the amount of total carbon emissions, we see two important facts. First, after rising slowly, carbon emissions by the United States have declined in recent years. Second, carbon emissions by China are soaring. China surpassed the U.S. around 2005, and the gap between the two countries is increasing.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

Note also that carbon emissions in India are rising. Emissions in most advanced economies are steady or falling. These trends are emphasized in the chart that shows carbon emissions for each country indexed from a common starting point. Emissions from China and India are rapidly rising, while emissions from countries with advanced economies have risen slowly or have declined.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

A chart that shows the carbon emissions efficiency of countries, that is, the carbon emitted per unit of GDP, shows that in general, countries are becoming more efficient. Advanced economies such as the U.S., Japan, and Germany have an advantage in this metric. These countries emit about one-fourth as much carbon per unit GDP as does China.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

The chart of carbon emissions per person in each country show that the United States leads in this measure. In 2011, the U.S. emitted about 17 tons of carbon dioxide per person. China was at 6.6, and India at 1.7. But, the trend in the U.S. is downward, that is, less carbon emitted per person. In China and India, the trend is up, and rising rapidly in China.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-small

This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

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

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for 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.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

Voice for Liberty Radio: Private enterprise and markets

Voice for Liberty logo with microphone 150

In this episode of WichitaLiberty Radio: Mary Beth Jarvis delivered the keynote address of the Kansas Republican Party Convention for 2014. She spoke on the topics of private enterprise and the profit and loss system.

Mary Beth Jarvis is Chief Executive Officer and President at Wichita Festivals. Prior to that, she worked in communications at Koch Industries, and before that in the United States Air Force.

In her speech, she said “Entrepreneurial capitalism — you know what that is — it’s not cronyism. It’s real courage, real risk, real passion, and real effort.”

Expanding on the importance of entrepreneurial capitalism, she told the audience:

“What else is necessary for that kind of entrepreneurial capitalism, that kind of engine for improvement, is that you always respect that what you need is a clear tie to market signals of what’s really adding value, what’s really making people’s lives better. That dedication to maintaining strong markets and to maintaining liberty is absolutely essential.

“It is also essential to find out quickly and clearly if this is the necessary message, that our efforts — however industrious — are not creating value. Because only then can you divert resources to that which will help us all. So the reward for successfully bringing value to someone ought to be clear, and the signal that you are not, ought to be clear, and the only way to do that is an absolute adherence to the principles of free markets and the improvement that they provide.”

In conclusion, she said: “In those public policy endeavors that you work so hard, and devote your energy and passion to, doing what’s right really means: Measuring ideas and actions by the yardstick of freedom and markets. The mantra that markets matter then becomes the platform for which the greatest progress and the greatest good in the improvement of our quality of life can happen.”

This was recorded on Friday January 24, 2014. This is a portion of her speech.

Shownotes

Wichita River Festival
Mary Beth Jarvis at LinkedIn

WichitaLiberty.TV.09

WichitaLiberty.TV January 26, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita’s performance report holds a forecast for increasing debt in Wichita. Then, the government sector in Kansas has grown faster than the private sector. What does this mean? Finally: What can the story of “Bootleggers and Baptists” teach us about regulation? Episode 29, broadcast January 26, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-small

This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

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

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for 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.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

Wichita economic development: Worth higher taxes?

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita city and business leaders are likely to ask Wichitans to support a higher sales tax in order to support additional economic development efforts. Should Wichitans vote in favor of this? View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Another thing that a tax increase in Wichita might be used for is for economic development. That is, paying subsidies to companies so that they will provide jobs in Wichita.

wichita-chamber-job-growth-2013-12
It’s felt that Wichita needs to step up its economic development efforts because things haven’t been going well lately. Not that everyone agrees. You’ve seen the charts I showed you, showing the growth of jobs in Wichita and also other economic indicators. When we compare Wichita with the nation as a whole and with our Visioneering peer cities, Wichita is almost always in last place. When I presented this data to the Wichita city Council, the Council members did not believe these numbers. So here’s a chart that was presented recently at a Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting. It uses the same data source that I use, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and it shows the same data using the same methodology. It comes to the same conclusion: Wichita performs poorly.

Our chamber of commerce and its leadership will use this poor performance to argue that Wichita needs to spend more money on economic development. And that’s a problem.

Your chamber of commerce radio buttons
Very often, local chambers of commerce support principles of crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

Now you may be confused. 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 not always the case. Here, in an excerpt from his Wall Street Journal article “Tax Chambers” Stephen Moore explains:

“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, state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes.”

This is the argument that the Wichita Chamber of Commerce and the city council will be making: We don’t spend enough on business welfare. Capitalism and the free market: These things don’t work, they will tell us. Only government can save Wichita from decline. Business leaders will tell us we need more taxes for more spending on economic development. But be careful here:

There’s a difference between “business leaders” and “capitalists.”

Last year Charles Koch explained the difference in an article in the Wall Street Journal. He wrote:

“Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

He continued:

“The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In his article, Koch makes an important observation when he defines cronyism: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.”

You regular viewers know that we have a problem with cronyism in Wichita. This is exemplified by incidents like where a mayor votes to send millions of taxpayer dollars to a man who owns movie theaters, and then the mayor sells his barbeque sauce in those theaters. It’s when a real estate developer lists the mayor and city manager as business references when bidding for a city project and thinks that no one will care or notice. It’s when a city council member receives thousands in campaign contributions from an out-of-state construction company right at the time he votes to award a contract to that company. It’s when the city council votes to give over-priced no-bid construction contracts to their significant campaign contributors.

In other words, instead of allowing people to direct resources to where they believe they will be most useful, our local government direct resources to their cronies. Where it’s useful for their political careers.

I’m of the opinion that it has harmed Wichita’s economic growth. It’s one of the reasons why Wichita is the bottom line in the charts we’ve seen. But many of our business leaders, and almost all of our political leaders, propose more of the same.

That’s right. Instead of focusing on things like water and sewer pipes, government wants to raise taxes so that it can direct more of our economy. Having neglected our water and sewer infrastructure to the point where the mayor says we need to spend at the rate of $70 million dollars per year for the next 30 years, our city leaders are going to ask us for more tax money so that they can try to fix the Wichita economy.

Returning to Stephen Moore’s article. Here he quotes Jon Caldera of the Independence Institute. “I used to think that public employee unions like the National Education Association were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions. 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.”

Let’s ask our business and political leaders some questions. First, will we acknowledge Wichita’s poor economic performance, or will we continue to ignore the facts and statistics? Second: Will we realize that the cozy relationship between city hall and a small group of insiders — Wichita’s cronies, if you will — is harmful and corrosive? Third: Will we realize that free enterprise and capitalism work better than cronyism?

In Wichita, ‘free markets’ used to justify business welfare

Wichita City HallIncredibly, a prominent Wichita business uses the free market to justify its request for economic development incentives. A gullible city council buys the argument.

At the December 10, 2013 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Bombardier LearJet received an economic development incentive that will let it avoid paying some property taxes on newly-purchased property. The amount involved in this particular incident is relatively small. According to city documents, “the value of the abated taxes on that investment could be as much as $1,980.”

(Bombardier receives millions each year in other government subsidies; see Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation and Bombardier Learjet should pay just a little for examples.)

While the amount of the incentive granted in the December 10 action is small, the meeting was useful in letting us understand how some prominent members of Wichita’s business community have distorted the principles of free markets and capitalism. As illustrated by the fawning of Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) and others, elected officials have long forsaken these ideas.

Bombardier’s argument

Don Pufahl, who is Director of Finance at Bombardier Learjet, addressed the council regarding this matter. He started his remarks on a positive note, telling the council “There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.”

We must be careful when using the term incentive. In a free-market economy or capitalism, incentive refers to the motivation of the possibility of earning profits. Another incentive — the flip side of the same coin — is avoiding losses. That’s why capitalism is called a profit-and-loss system. The losses are just as important as profits, as losses are a signal that the economic activity is not valued, and the resources should be shifted to somewhere else where they are valued more highly.

But in the field of economic development as practiced by government, incentive means something given to or granted to a company. That’s what the representative from Bombardier meant by incentive. He explained: “One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.”

A few thoughts: First, Bombardier is not investing in the community. The company is investing in itself.

Second, the free market system that the speaker seemed to praise is a system based on voluntary exchange. That flows from property rights, which is the fundamental idea that people own themselves and the product of their labor, and are free to exchange with others, or to not exchange. But when government uses incentives, many people do not consent to the exchange. That’s not a free market system.

Third, an important part of a free market system is market competition. That is, business firms compete with others for customers. They also compete with other business firms for resources needed for production, such as capital. When government makes these decisions instead of markets, we don’t have a free market system. Instead, we have cronyism. Charles G. Koch has described the harm of cronyism, recently writing: “The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

In the same article Koch wrote: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.” (Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America)

The representative from Bombardier also said that the city’s incentives would reduce Bombardier’s investment risk. There is little doubt this is true. What has happened, however, is that the risk has not been eliminated or reduced. It has merely been shifted to the people of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita public school district, and the State of Kansas. When government does this on a piecemeal basis, this is called cronyism. When done universally, we call this socialism.

We can easily argue that actions like this — and especially the large subsidies granted to Bombardier the by state — increase the risk of these investments. Since the subsidies reduce the cost of its investment, Bombardier may be motivated to make risky investments that it might otherwise not make, were it investing its own funds (and that of its shareholders).

The cost of Bombardier’s investments, and the accompanying risk, is spread to a class of business firms that can’t afford additional cost and risk. These are young startup firms, the entrepreneurial firms that we need to nurture in order to have real and sustainable economic growth and jobs. But we can’t identify these. We don’t know who they are. But we need an economic development strategy that creates an environment where these young entrepreneurial firms have the greatest chance to survive. (See Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and How to grow the Kansas economy.)

Now the city and Bombardier will say that these investments have a payoff for the taxpayer. That is, if Bombardier grows, it will pay more in taxes, and that constitutes “profit” for taxpayers. Even if we accept that premise — that the city “profits” from collecting taxes — why do we need to invest in Bombardier in order to harvest its “profits” when there are so many companies that pay taxes without requiring subsidy?

Finally, the representative from Bombardier said that these incentives are not a handout. I don’t see how anyone can say that and maintain a straight face.

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It would be one thing if the Wichita area was thriving economically. But it isn’t. We’re in last place among our self-identified peers, as illustrated in Wichita and Visioneering peers job growth. Minutes from a recent meeting of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the primary organization in charge of economic development, holds this paragraph: “As shown in the Chart below Wichita economy suffered the largest loss of employment among peer cities and has not seen any signs of rebounding as the other communities have. Wichita lost 31,000 jobs during the recession principally due to the down turn in general aviation.”

Following is a fuller representation of the Bombardier representative’s remarks to the council.

There are various aspects to a free-market economy. There’s the rule of law, there’s property rights, and another major aspect is incentives.

One party, in this case, the local government, uses incentives for another party, in this case our company, to invest in the community.

As the company moves forward to invest in the community, those investments are not without risk. … Your incentives allow us to offset some of that risk so that we can move forward with those investments, which hopefully create new jobs and also then also improves the quality of life in our community. … These incentives are not a handout. They are a way that the local government uses such things to offset some of the risk that is involved in local companies as they invest in the community, bring jobs to the community, and improve the community overall.


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Your local chamber of commerce: Working for you?

Your chamber of commerce radio buttons

Very often, local chambers of commerce support principles of crony capitalism instead of pro-growth policies that allow free enterprise and genuine capitalism to flourish.

We may soon have an example of this in Wichita, where business leaders are tossing about ideas for tax increases. I distinguish between “business leaders” and “capitalists.”

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 not always the case. Here, in an excerpt from his article “Tax Chambers” Stephen Moore explains:

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.”

“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 full article can be found here.

Charles G. Koch: Corporate cronyism harms America

From September 2012, and even more relevant today.

“The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

The editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal by Charles G. Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries contains many powerful arguments against the rise of cronyism. The argument above is just one of many.

In his article, Koch makes an important observation when he defines cronyism: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.”

“Rent-seeking” was always a difficult term to use and understand. It had meaning mostly to economists. But “cronyism” — everyone knows what that means. It is a harsh word, offensive to many elected officials. But we need a harsh term to accurately describe the harm caused, as Koch writes: “This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

The entire article is available at the Wall Street Journal. Koch has also contributed other articles on this topic, see Charles G. Koch: Why Koch Industries is speaking out and Charles Koch: The importance of economic freedom.

Charles G. Koch: Corporate Cronyism Harms America

When businesses feed at the federal trough, they threaten public support for business and free markets.

By Charles G. Koch

“We didn’t build this business — somebody else did.”

So reads a sign outside a small roadside craft store in Utah. The message is clearly tongue-in-cheek. But if it hung next to the corporate offices of some of our nation’s big financial institutions or auto makers, there would be no irony in the message at all.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the role of American business is increasingly vilified or viewed with skepticism. In a Rasmussen poll conducted this year, 68% of voters said they “believe government and big business work together against the rest of us.”

Businesses have failed to make the case that government policy — not business greed — has caused many of our current problems. To understand the dreadful condition of our economy, look no further than mandates such as the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “affordable housing” quotas, directives such as the Community Reinvestment Act, and the Federal Reserve’s artificial, below-market interest-rate policy.

Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.

With partisan rhetoric on the rise this election season, it’s important to remind ourselves of what the role of business in a free society really is — and even more important, what it is not.

Continue reading at The Wall Street Journal

A learning opportunity for Wichita

Next month the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce brings a speaker to town who might be able to offer Wichita helpful advice. As reported in the Wichita Business Journal, “Jim Clifton, the chairman and CEO of Gallup Inc., says cities that create a culture of entrepreneurial development are the ones succeeding today.”

Clifton is the author of The Coming Jobs War. Here’s material from the inside flap of this 2011 book:

WHAT EVERYONE IN THE WORLD WANTS IS A GOOD JOB

In a provocative book for business and government leaders, Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton describes how this undeniable fact will affect all leadership decisions as countries wage war to produce the best jobs.

Leaders of countries and cities, Clifton says, should focus on creating good jobs because as jobs go, so does the fate of nations. Jobs bring prosperity, peace, and human development — but long-term unemployment ruins lives, cities, and countries.

Creating good jobs is tough, and many leaders are doing many things wrong. They’re undercutting entrepreneurs instead of cultivating them. They’re running companies with depressed workforces. They’re letting the next generation of job creators rot in bad schools.

A global jobs war is coming, and there’s no time to waste. Cities are crumbling for lack of good jobs. Nations are in revolt because their people can’t get good jobs. The cities and countries that act first — that focus everything they have on creating good jobs — are the ones that will win.

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It sounds like Clifton has some good advice that Wichita could follow in two areas: Fostering entrepreneurship and improving schools. Wichita certainly needs help in creating jobs. In the nearby video, the record of job growth for Wichita, the nation, and our Visioneering peers (Kansas City, Omaha, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa) is presented. (Click here to watch the video on YouTube, which may work best.) If you don’t have time to watch, I’ll let you know that Wichita performs badly in this comparison. In last place, that is.

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Regarding schools, the record of Kansas schools is not as good as it first appears if we look beyond a simple comparison of NAEP scores with other states. As shown in Kansas school test scores, a hidden story, Kansas trails Texas in most areas of comparison. Further, the National Center for Education Statistics, in the most recent version of Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, found that Kansas had weakened some of its standards. NCES judged Kansas’ standards as being low to begin with, and then they were lowered farther. This was during the years immediately after the Kansas Supreme Court ordered higher school spending, and while the legislature complied with that order. See Why are Kansas school standards so low?

But our government leaders in Wichita and Kansas won’t recognize these facts, at least not publicly.

Entrepreneurship in Wichita

Wichita’s economic development policies are definitely stacked against the entrepreneur. As Wichita props up its established industries, it makes it more difficult for young firms to thrive. Wichita uses programs that are targeted investment in our economic future, our elected officials and bureaucrats believing 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.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

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.’”

(For a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view, see Research on economic development incentives. A sample finding is “General fiscal policy found to be mildly effective, while targeted incentives reduced economic performance (as measured by per capita income).”

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 for everyone is an example of such a policy. Abating taxes for specific companies through programs like IRB, EDX, PEAK, and HPIP are examples of precisely the wrong policy.

In explaining the importance of dynamism, Hall wrote: ” Generally speaking, dynamism represents persistent, annual change in about one-third of Kansas jobs. Job creation may be a key goal of economic development policy but job creation is a residual economic outcome of business dynamism. The policy challenge centers on promoting dynamism by establishing a business environment that induces business birth and expansion without bias related to the size or type of business.”

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach, especially the policies that prop up our established companies to the detriment of dynamism. 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.

Exchange Place still not good for Wichita, others

Wichita city hall logo

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider a redevelopment plan for the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita. Despite having shed the problems with the former owners, the project has become an even worse deal for the taxpayers of Wichita, Kansas, and the nation. Those looking for jobs and for investment capital to meet consumer demands are worse off, too.

Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.

HUD Loan Amount         $29,087,700
Private Equity            5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity        19,370,395
TIF Proceeds             12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds  $66,610,349

Consider each of these sources of funding. TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.

It sounds innocent, even beneficient and desirable. But if this project was not built within a TIF district, it would add $12,500,000 in tax revenues to the city, county, and school district. This is called “building up the tax base,” something politicians and bureaucrats say is an important goal. Downtown Wichita, however, has not done well in this regard, despite the claim of hundreds of millions in investment.

City leaders will tell us that tax increment financing is needed for economic development. Regarding the effect of tax increment financing districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

What about the effect of tax increment financing on job creation, that being another goal mentioned by politicians and bureaucrats? One person who has looked at the effect of TIF on jobs is Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. He authored a recent report titled Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth. In its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs: “Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment.” This project is a retail project, and can be expected to have a negative effect on employment.

Another bad aspect of this project for citizens is what city documents describe as “tax credit equity.” The amount is $19,370,395. This is understatement at its finest. Tax credits are a direct transfer from taxpayers to the project developers, with very few strings attached.

A tax credit is an appropriation of money made through the tax system and economically equivalent to a direct grant of money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” or “tax expenditures” to describe tax credits in recognition of this. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations. If the Kansas Legislature and United States Congress are not comfortable with writing this developer a check for over $19,000,000, they should not make a roundabout contribution through the tax system that has the same economic impact on the state’s and nation’s finances.

Citizens will be told that the tax credits are needed because rehabbing historic buildings is expensive. We should let politicians and bureaucrats know that living or working in a historic building is a premium amenity that one chooses, just like one might choose granite counter tops in their kitchen. We shouldn’t expect others to pay for these voluntary choices.

Then, there’s a “HUD Loan Amount,” which is actually a loan guarantee of $29,087,700. U.S. taxpayers are liable for this amount of money should the project not meet its projections.

The subsides to this project have real costs. This development will require services from the city, county, and school district, yet it won’t be contributing its full share of property taxes. So someone else has to pay.

The tax credits represent money that has to be made up by taxpayers across Kansas and the nation. Again, someone else has to pay. Since Kansas applies sales tax to food, even poor people buying groceries will be contributing to the cost of the grants given to this project through state tax credits.

We’ll be told that there’s a “funding gap” that taxpayers must step forward to fill. Why does that gap exist? It’s simple: Markets have decided that this project is not worth what it costs. If it was worth what it’s going to cost, and if the developer is reputable (as we’ve been promised), markets would be willing to fund the project. This happens every day all across the country, even during recessions.

What the city is proposing to do is to take risks with the taxpayers’ money that no one is willing to take with their own. Further, the spending and credit that is diverted from markets to this project wastes capital. There is less capital available for projects that people value, because it is diverted to projects that politicians and bureaucrats value.

The difficulty is that it’s easy to see the new project. The groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies that commemorate government intervention will be covered by television and newspapers. Politicians and bureaucrats are drawn to these events and will spend taxpayer funds to make sure you’re aware of them.

It’s more difficult to see that the harm that government intervention causes. That harm is dispersed and more difficult to spot. But the harm is real. If it is not, then we need to ask why our governments don’t do more of this type of development.

Driving by a development in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Recognizing the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is “stage one” thinking, and no more than that.

It’s hard to think beyond stage one. It requires considering not only the seen, but also the unseen, as Frederic Bastiat taught us in his famous parable of the broken window. It also requires thinking of the long term effects of a policy, not just the immediate. But over and over again we see how politicians at all levels of government stop thinking at stage one. This is one of the many reasons why we need to return as much decision-making as possible to the private sector, and drastically limit the powers of politicians and governments.

Touring a Wichita-owned downtown retail development

I have often wondered why economists, with these absurdities all around them, so easily adopt the view that men act rationally. This may be because they study an economic system in which the discipline of the market ensures that, in a business setting, decisions are more or less rational. The employee of a corporation who buys something for $10 and sells it for $8 is not likely to do so for long. … A politician who wastes his country’s resources on a grand scale may have a successful career.
– Ronald Coase

william-street-parking-garage-2013-09-02-01

At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the results should give us reason to be wary of government economic development efforts.

As reported by the Wichita Eagle almost twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:

The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.

Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”

Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.

(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14.)

But it hasn’t happened. As can be seen in this video, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office has moved to another location.

It’s not as though the building has some advantages. There are hundreds of state employees parking in the garage each workday. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area.

william-street-parking-garage-2013-09-02-02

As can be seen in the nearby photos (click them for larger versions), a walk down this block also reveals maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. Maybe that’s why there’s evidently no demand to rent this space — except by a government office, and even it has left.

The difference

What is the difference between private ownership of assets and government ownership? A big factor is the accountability provided by markets, along with the profit motive. Private owners of rental property like this have a big incentive to keep it filled with tenants. If the private owners are able to attract tenants and control their costs, they can earn a profit. Markets impose a discipline on these costs, because landlords can charge only what the market will bear for rent. If landlords can’t attract tenants, or can’t control costs, they go out of business. That makes the property available to someone else, perhaps someone who can manage the property successfully.

Markets and the profit motive are not perfect. But when private landlords are inefficient, no one is harmed except the landlords.

Government, however, can’t earn a profit or suffer a loss. It can’t even calculate profit and loss in any meaningful sense. Usually government doesn’t account for its capital investment. That’s certainly the case with this empty retail space. A private landlord would realize that this empty space that can’t be rented has an opportunity cost that is very real. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Wichita city management.

This illustrates the weak accountability that government faces. Despite situations like this, the Wichita city manager received effusive praise from the Wichita City Council this year, along with a large raise in pay. Two years ago the incumbent Wichita mayor didn’t inspire a strong opponent, and only about 12 percent of the people bothered to vote.

Considering all the advantages this government property has, it’s failing. It has no tenants, and it’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace city bureaucrats.

Wichita income is not keeping up

Visioneering Wichita uses per capita income growth as one benchmark of economic progress. What do the numbers say about the city’s progress? The following video illustrates. View below, or click here to view in higher resolution at YouTube, which may work better for some people.

For more in this, and to access the interactive visualization, see Wichita personal income growth benchmark.

WichitaLiberty.TV August 11, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks asks if shoppers have ever paid extra sales tax in Wichita’s Community Improvement Districts, and describes efforts by the city to avoid disclosure of this tax. Then, are there similarities between Wichita and Detroit? Finally, a Sedgwick County Commissioner is worried about agriculture being driven out of the county, but Bob thinks he doesn’t need to worry. Episode 8, broadcast August 11, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

The harm of business welfare

What is the effect of the issuance of business welfare in Wichita, of the intervention in the economy by politicians? Based on an article by Bob Weeks, Amanda BillyRock illustrates — literally — the harm caused when government intervenes in the economy. Thanks also to Henry Hazlitt for the insights in his simple but imposing book Economics in One Lesson.

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.

At the moment, we in the United States have available to us, if we will take it, something that is about as close to a free lunch as you can have. After the fall of communism, everybody in the world agreed that socialism was a failure. Everybody in the world, more or less, agreed that capitalism was a success. The funny thing is that every capitalist country in the world apparently concluded that therefore what the West needed was more socialism. That’s obviously absurd, so let’s look at the opportunity we now have to get a nearly free lunch. President Clinton has said that what we need is widespread sacrifice and concentrated benefits. What we really need is exactly the opposite. What we need and what we can have — what is the nearest thing to a free lunch — is widespread benefits and concentrated sacrifice. It’s not a wholly free lunch, but it’s close.

Let me give a few examples. The Rural Electrification Administration was established to bring electricity to farms in the 1930s, when about 80 percent of the farms did not have electricity. When 100 percent of the farms had electricity, the REA shifted to telephone service. Now 100 percent of the farms have telephone service, but the REA goes merrily along. Suppose we abolish the REA, which is just making low-interest loans to concentrated interests, mostly electric and telephone companies. The people of the United States would be better off; they’d save a lot of money that could be used for tax reductions. Who would be hurt? A handful of people who have been getting government subsidies at the expense of the rest of the population. I call that pretty nearly a free lunch.

Another example illustrates Parkinson’s law in agriculture. In 1945 there were 10 million people, either family or hired workers, employed on farms, and the Department of Agriculture had 80,000 employees. In 1992 there were 3 million people employed on farms, and the Department of Agriculture had 122,000 employees.

Nearly every item in the federal budget offers a similar opportunity. The Clinton people will tell you that all of those things are in the budget because people want the goodies but are just too stingy to pay for them. That’s utter nonsense. The people don’t want those goodies. Suppose you put to the American people a simple proposition about sugar: We can set things up so that the sugar you buy is produced primarily from beets and cane grown on American farms or so the sugar in addition comes without limit from El Salvador or the Philippines or somewhere else. If we restrict you to home-grown sugar, it will be two or three times as expensive as if we include sugar from abroad. Which do you really think voters would choose? The people don’t want to pay higher prices. A small group of special interests, which reaps concentrated benefits, wants them to, and that is why sugar in the United States costs several times the world price. The people were never consulted. We are not governed by the people; that’s a myth carried over from Abraham Lincoln’s day. We don’t have government of the people, by the people, for the people. We have government of the people, by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats.

Consider another myth. President Clinton says he’s the agent of change. That is false. He gets away with saying that because of the tendency to refer to the 12 Reagan-Bush years as if they were one period. They weren’t. We had Reaganomics, then Bushonomics, and now we have Clintonomics. Reaganomics had four simple principles: lower marginal tax rates, less regulation, restrained government spending, noninflationary monetary policy. Though Reagan did not achieve all of his goals, he made good progress. Bush’s policy was exactly the reverse of Reaganomics: higher tax rates, more regulation, more government spending. What is Clinton’s policy? Higher tax rates, more regulation, more government spending. Clintonomics is a continuation of Bushonomics, and we know what the results of reversing Reaganomics were.

On a more fundamental level, our present problems, both economic and noneconomic, arise mainly from the drastic change that has occurred during the past six decades in the relative importance of two different markets for determining who gets what, when, where, and how. Those markets are the economic market operating under the incentive of profit and the political market operating under the incentive of power. In my lifetime the relative importance of the economic market has declined in terms of the fraction of the country’s resources that it is able to use. And the importance of the political, or government, market has greatly expanded. We have been starving the market that has been working and feeding the market that has been failing. That’s essentially the story of the past 60 years.

We Americans are far wealthier today than we were 60 years ago. But we are less free. And we are less secure. When I graduated from high school in 1928, total government spending at all levels in the United States was a little over 10 percent of the national income. Two-thirds of that spending was state and local. Federal government spending was about 3 percent of the national income, or roughly what it had been since the Constitution was adopted a century and a half earlier, except for periods of major war. Half of federal spending was for the army and the navy. State and local government spending was something like 7 to 9 percent, and half of that was for schools and roads. Today, total government spending at all levels is 43 percent of the national income, and two-thirds of that is federal, one-third state and local. The federal portion is 30 percent of national income, or about 10 times what it was in 1928.

That figure understates the fraction of resources being absorbed by the political market. In addition to its own spending, the government mandates that all of us make a great many expenditures, something it never used to do. Mandated spending ranges from the requirement that you pay for antipollution devices on your automobiles, to the Clean Air Bill, to the Aid for Disability Act; you can go down the line. Essentially, the private economy has become an agent of the federal government. Everybody in this room was working for the federal government about a month ago filling out income tax returns. Why shouldn’t you have been paid for being tax collectors for the federal government? So I would estimate that at least 50 percent of the total productive resources of our nation are now being organized through the political market. In that very important sense, we are more than half socialist.

So much for input, what about output? Consider the private market first. There has been an absolutely tremendous increase in our living standards, due almost entirely to the private market. In 1928 radio was in its early stages, television was a futuristic dream, airplanes were all propeller driven, a trip to New York from where my family lived 20 miles away in New Jersey was a great event. Truly, a revolution has occurred in our material standard of living. And that revolution has occurred almost entirely through the private economic market. Government’s contribution was essential but not costly. Its contribution, which it’s not making nearly as well as it did at an earlier time, was to protect private property rights and to provide a mechanism for adjudicating disputes. But the overwhelming bulk of the revolution in our standard of living came through the private market.

Whereas the private market has produced a higher standard of living, the expanded government market has produced mainly problems. The contrast is sharp. Both Rose and I came from families with incomes that by today’s standards would be well below the so-called poverty line. We both went to government schools, and we both thought we got a good education. Today the children of families that have incomes corresponding to what we had then have a much harder time getting a decent education. As children, we were able to walk to school; in fact, we could walk in the streets without fear almost everywhere. In the depth of the Depression, when the number of truly disadvantaged people in great trouble was far larger than it is today, there was nothing like the current concern over personal safety, and there were few panhandlers littering the streets. What you had on the street were people trying to sell apples. There was a sense of self-reliance that, if it hasn’t disappeared, is much less prevalent.

In 1938 you could even find an apartment to rent in New York City. After we got married and moved to New York, we looked in the apartments-available column in the newspaper, chose half a dozen we wanted to look at, did so, and rented one. People used to give up their apartments in the spring, go away for the summer, and come back in the autumn to find new apartments. It was called the moving season. In New York today, the best way to find an apartment is probably to keep track of the obituary columns. What’s produced that difference? Why is New York housing a disaster today? Why does the South Bronx look like parts of Bosnia that have been bombed? Not because of the private market, obviously, but because of rent control.

Despite the current rhetoric, our real problems are not economic. I am inclined to say that our real problems are not economic despite the best efforts of government to make them so. I want to cite one figure. In 1946 government assumed responsibility for producing full employment with the Full Employment Act. In the years since then, unemployment has averaged 5.7 percent. In the years from 1900 to 1929 when government made no pretense of being responsible for employment, unemployment averaged 4.6 percent. So, our unemployment problem too is largely government created. Nonetheless, the economic problems are not the real ones.

Our major problems are social — deteriorating education, lawlessness and crime, homelessness, the collapse of family values, the crisis in medical care, teenage pregnancies. Every one of these problems has been either produced or exacerbated by the well-intentioned efforts of government. It’s easy to document two things: that we’ve been transferring resources from the private market to the government market and that the private market works and the government market doesn’t.

It’s far harder to understand why supposedly intelligent, well-intentioned people have produced these results. One reason, as we all know, that is certainly part of the answer is the power of special interests. But I believe that a more fundamental answer has to do with the difference between the self-interest of individuals when they are engaged in the private market and the self-interest of individuals when they are engaged in the political market. If you’re engaged in a venture in the private market and it begins to fail, the only way you can keep it going is to dig into your own pocket. So you have a strong incentive to shut it down. On the other hand, if you start exactly the same enterprise in the government sector, with exactly the same prospects for failure, and it begins to fail, you have a much better alternative. You can say that your project or program should really have been undertaken on a bigger scale; and you don’t have to dig into your own pocket, you have a much deeper pocket into which to dig, that of the taxpayer. In perfectly good conscience you can try to persuade, and typically succeed in persuading, not the taxpayer, but the congressmen, that yours is really a good project and that all it needs is a little more money. And so, to coin another aphorism, if a private venture fails, it’s closed down. If a government venture fails, it’s expanded.

We sometimes think the solution to our problems is to elect the right people to Congress. I believe that’s false, that if a random sample of the people in this room were to replace the 435 people in the House and the 100 people in the Senate, the results would be much the same. With few exceptions, the people in Congress are decent people who want to do good. They’re not deliberately engaging in activities that they know will do harm. They are simply immersed in an environment in which all the pressures are in one direction, to spend more money.

Recent studies demonstrate that most of the pressure for more spending comes from the government itself. It’s a self-generating monstrosity. In my opinion, the only way we can change it is by changing the incentives under which the people in government operate. If you want people to act differently, you have to make it in their own self-interest to do so. As Armen Alchan always says, there’s one thing you can count on everybody in the world to do, and that’s to put his self-interest above yours.

I have no magic formula for changing the self-interest of bureaucrats and members of Congress. Constitutional amendments to limit taxes and spending, to rule out monetary manipulation, and to inhibit market distortions would be fine, but we’re not going to get them. The only viable thing on the national horizon is the term-limits movement. A six-year term limit for representatives would not change their basic nature, but it would change drastically the kinds of people who would seek election to Congress and the incentives under which they would operate. I believe that those of us who are interested in trying to reverse the allocation of our resources, to shift more and more to the private market and less and less to the government market, must disabuse ourselves of the notion that all we need to do is elect the right people. At one point we thought electing the right president would do it. We did and it didn’t. We have to turn our attention to changing the incentives under which people operate. The movement for term limits is one way of doing that; it’s an excellent idea, and it’s making real progress. There have to be other movements as well.

Some changes are being made on the state level. Wherever you have initiative, that is, popular referendum, there is an opportunity to change. I don’t believe in pure democracy; nobody believes in pure democracy. Nobody believes that it’s appropriate to kill 49 percent of the population even if 51 percent of the people vote to do so. But we do believe in giving everybody the opportunity to use his own resources as effectively as he can to promote his own values as long as he doesn’t interfere with anybody else. And on the whole, experience has shown that the public at large, through the initiative process, is much more attuned to that objective than are the people they elect to the legislature. So I believe that the referendum process has to be exploited. In California we have been working very hard on an initiative to allow parental choice of schools. Effective parental choice will be on the ballot this fall. Maybe we won’t win it, but we’ve got to keep trying.

We’ve got to keeping trying to change the way Americans think about the role of government. Cato does that by, among other things, documenting in detail the harmful effects of government policies that I’ve swept over in broad generalities. The American public is being taken to the cleaners. As the people come to understand what is going on, the intellectual climate will change, and we may be able to initiate institutional changes that will establish appropriate incentives for the people who control the government purse strings and so large a part of our lives.

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.

Idealists, from Harold Laski to Jawaharlal Nehru, promised the suffering Indian masses that “democratic economic planning” would abolish famines, bring material prosperity, resolve age-old conflicts between the castes and eliminate inequality. The result has been continued deprivation for the masses, continued violence between the castes and widened inequality.

To come down to less sweeping cases rent control has been promoted for millenniums as a way to hold down rents and ensure more housing for the disadvantaged. Wherever it has been adopted, the actual result has been precisely the opposite for all but a few favored tenants. Rent control has encouraged the wasteful use of housing space and has discouraged the building of more housing units. As a result, rents actually paid — whether legally or under the table — by all tenants except those who do not move have skyrocketed. And even the tenants who do not move complain about not being able to.

Over two years ago, when the San Francisco supervisors were contemplating a form of rent control, I republished in a local paper a NEWSWEEK column of mine on rent control, prefacing it with the comment that only a “fool or a knave” could support rent control after examining the massive evidence on its effects. Needless to say, that did not prevent the majority of a board of supervisors, consisting of neither fools nor knaves, from enacting the ordinance I objected to. And the lessons of experience have not prevented the adoption of rent control in other cities — or the repetition of that same experience.

Urban renewal programs were urged to cure “urban blight” and improve the housing available to the poor. The result was a “Federal Bulldozer,” as Martin Anderson titled his searching examination of urban renewal. More dwelling units were torn down than were constructed. The new units constructed were mostly for middle- and upper-income classes. Urban blight was simply shifted and made worse by the still higher density created elsewhere by removing the poor from the “renewed” area.

In education, professionalization, integration, bilingualism, massive doses of federal assistance — all have been promoted to improve the quality of schooling and reduce racial tension and discrimination. The result was predictable: a drastic lowering of educational performance and an increase in actual segregation of races, at least in the North.

President Nixon introduced price controls on Aug. 15, 1971, to eliminate inflation, which at the time was running at about 4 to 5 percent per year. When controls ended in 1974, inflation soared into double digits.

The Interstate Commerce Commission was promoted in the 1880s and 1890s by the Ralph Naders of the day to discipline monopolistic railroads and benefit their customers. One group in today’s Nader conglomerate has published a devastating study of the ICC demonstrating that it strengthened the monopoly power of the railroads, and later of trucking. The users of transportation have had the dubious privilege of paying higher prices for poorer service.

Need I go on? I challenge my readers to name a government social program that has achieved the results promised by its well-meaning and public-interested proponents. I keep repeating “well-meaning and public-interested proponents” because they have generally been the dupes of others who had very clear self-interested motives and often did achieve the results that they intended — the railroads in the 1890s for example.

The amazing thing to me is the continued gullibility of intellectuals and the public. I wish someone would explain that to me. Is it simply because no one has given this widely documented generalization a catchy name – like … (suggestions welcome)?

WichitaLiberty.TV July 28, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, economist Dr. Russell Sobel joins host Bob Weeks. Topics include local economic development incentives, the environment of favor-seeking, how regulation stifles entrepreneurship, the seen and the unseen, the broken window fallacy, and Dr. Sobel’s research on how intergovernmental grants lead to higher taxes. Episode 6, broadcast July 28, 2013.

Links to material mentioned in this episode:
Dr. Sobel’s page.
Unleashing Capitalism.
Do intergovernmental grants create ratchets in state and local taxes?
Bastiat: What is seen and not seen, and the broken window.

Cronyism is harmful to our standard of living

“The effects on government are equally distorting — and corrupting. Instead of protecting our liberty and property, government officials are determining where to send resources based on the political influence of their cronies. In the process, government gains even more power and the ranks of bureaucrats continue to swell.”

An editorial in Wall Street Journal last year written by Charles G. Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries contains many powerful arguments against the rise of cronyism. The argument above is just one of many.

Did you know that the Washington metropolitan area is one of the most prosperous? Here’s why:

Trouble begins whenever businesses take their eyes off the needs and wants of consumers—and instead cast longing glances on government and the favors it can bestow. When currying favor with Washington is seen as a much easier way to make money, businesses inevitably begin to compete with rivals in securing government largess, rather than in winning customers. … There are now businesses and entire industries that exist solely as a result of federal patronage. Profiting from government instead of earning profits in the economy, such businesses can continue to succeed even if they are squandering resources and making products that people wouldn’t ordinarily buy.

In the article, Koch makes an important observation when he defines cronyism: “We have a term for this kind of collusion between business and government. It used to be known as rent-seeking. Now we call it cronyism. Rampant cronyism threatens the economic foundations that have made this the most prosperous country in the world.”

“Rent-seeking” was always a difficult term to use and understand. It had meaning mostly to economists. But “cronyism” — everyone knows what that means. It is a harsh word, offensive to many elected officials. But we need a harsh term to accurately describe the harm caused, as Koch writes: “This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

The entire article is available at the Wall Street Journal. Koch has also contributed other articles on this topic, see Charles G. Koch: Why Koch Industries is speaking out and Charles Koch: The importance of economic freedom.

Charles G. Koch: Corporate Cronyism Harms America

When businesses feed at the federal trough, they threaten public support for business and free markets.

By Charles G. Koch

“We didn’t build this business — somebody else did.”

So reads a sign outside a small roadside craft store in Utah. The message is clearly tongue-in-cheek. But if it hung next to the corporate offices of some of our nation’s big financial institutions or auto makers, there would be no irony in the message at all.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the role of American business is increasingly vilified or viewed with skepticism. In a Rasmussen poll conducted this year, 68% of voters said they “believe government and big business work together against the rest of us.”

Businesses have failed to make the case that government policy — not business greed — has caused many of our current problems. To understand the dreadful condition of our economy, look no further than mandates such as the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “affordable housing” quotas, directives such as the Community Reinvestment Act, and the Federal Reserve’s artificial, below-market interest-rate policy.

Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.

With partisan rhetoric on the rise this election season, it’s important to remind ourselves of what the role of business in a free society really is — and even more important, what it is not.

The role of business is to provide products and services that make people’s lives better — while using fewer resources — and to act lawfully and with integrity. Businesses that do this through voluntary exchanges not only benefit through increased profits, they bring better and more competitively priced goods and services to market. This creates a win-win situation for customers and companies alike.

Only societies with a system of economic freedom create widespread prosperity. Studies show that the poorest people in the most-free societies are 10 times better off than the poorest in the least-free. Free societies also bring about greatly improved outcomes in life expectancy, literacy, health, the environment and other important dimensions.

Continue reading at The Wall Street Journal (subscription not required)

Local economic development incentives: The economic perspective

Recently Russell S. Sobel, Ph.D., who is Visiting Scholar in Entrepreneurship in the School of Business Administration at The Citadel spoke in Wichita on the topic “Economic Development Incentives: A Necessary Evil?” A video presentation of his talk follows.

Sobel is the author of many books and publications, including Unleashing Capitalism and the popular university textbook Economics: Private and Public Choice, 14th edition. Video production is by Paul Soutar.

Sedgwick County votes for harmful intervention

man-digging-coins

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:

Dear Investors,

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.

Tim Chase

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.

Business tax credits more desired than zero tax rates

Economic development

A Kansas business welfare program is more attractive and valuable than elimination of the Kansas corporate income tax, at least for some influential corporations in Kansas. The program is High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP), which grants tax credits in exchange for capital investment.

In April Dr. Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business delivered a presentation on Kansas tax reform, and he explained the situation (video here):

There is something called an HPIP investment tax credit. It stands for High Performance Incentive Program. This is a very valuable tax credit to corporations. But, you don’t get it automatically. You have to apply to the state. Only about 100 or 125 of these credits are given out each year. It’s about $50 to $60 million per year. It’s a very large number. Back in 2011, … the plan was to get rid of all of these special deals, especially this one credit, and we’re going to reduce all the rates.

The corporate sector — some very influential people in the corporate sector — did not want that at all. They went to the mat, hard. … The point is, there was an effort to reduce corporate income tax. The corporations, at least a very strong constituent sector, didn’t want it. They wanted their credit.

In other words, the business welfare benefits these corporations — many thought to be in the aerospace industry — receive from the state is greater than the Kansas income tax they pay. That’s the only conclusion we can draw from their choice of favoring the HPIP credits over elimination of their Kansas income tax.

A table from Hall’s paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy holds calculations that reveal this effect.

hpip-credits-example-2013-07

The 11.92% that is highlighted in yellow shows the deformation of the business investment and tax landscape that causes some corporations to prefer HPIP tax credits over zero tax rates. Each row in the table represents a different scenario, one being retaining the HPIP credit. Columns represent various amounts of investment. It is in the column for the largest amount of investment that HPIP is most valuable, based on expected rate of return for the investment. HPIP is also more valuable than the strategy in any other row, considering the large investment column. HPIP, we can see, favors large corporations over small, as it is most valuable when making large investments.

A problem, as Hall told the audience in the video, is that the HPIP is not given automatically to all companies that make capital investments. The credit must be applied for, various conditions must be met, and approval received.

This system of selecting which companies receive targeted economic development investment in Kansas is contrary to market principals. The state, rather than markets, is making investment decisions. It’s also contrary to Hall’s economic dynamism concept explained in the paper referenced above. In this idea, the goal of the state is to encourage a large number of business startups each year, and then nurture conditions where all have a chance to thrive. Many will not survive, but some will. We don’t know which firms will thrive, so it’s important to treat all firms equally and give all a chance.

Programs like HPIP are contrary to this philosophy, and instead concentrate the state’s investments in existing, often large, companies — the companies that make the large capital investments for which HPIP returns the most favorable financial results. This is also an illustration of the difference between a business-friendly environment and capitalism.

Why is business welfare necessary in Wichita?

A company in Wichita requires business welfare in order to capture a new business opportunity. What’s wrong with this picture?

stop-35069_640

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.

Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy

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.

Economic freedom ads debut in Wichita

This week the Wichita Eagle reports that Charles Koch, chairman of the board and CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, is starting a local campaign to educate people on the benefits of economic freedom and the harm of government overreach. (Charles Koch launching Wichita campaign about economic freedom, government overreach, July 9, 2013)

So far one video advertisement is available, shown at the end of this article.

In announcing this effort, a statement at the Charles Koch Foundation reads:

“We believe the best way to promote progress and societal well-being is through free societies,” said CKF founder Charles G. Koch. “The spot was developed as part of our ongoing work to support the kind of scholarship and analysis that examines how to ensure opportunities for earned success while sharing compassion for the vulnerable.”

Koch is not shying away from important issues related to economic freedom such as the minimum wage. The common belief, fiercely held and believed by those who say they want to help the poor, is that a high minimum wage is needed. In a video on another site sponsored by the Charles Koch foundation, it is argued that “And among the least skilled, least educated workers, increases in the minimum wage significantly increase unemployment. The minimum wage may be a well-intentioned policy, but it often hurts the very workers who are in most need of our help.” The video is Does the minimum wage hurt workers? at the site Economic Freedom.

Recently Koch has contributed several articles on the importance of economic freedom and the harm of cronyism, including Charles Koch: The importance of economic freedom, and in the Wall Street Journal, Charles G. Koch: Why Koch Industries is speaking out.

Starwood calls on Wichita

Office worker using telephone and computer

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council considers economic development incentives to Starwood Hotels & Resorts for a call center to open in Wichita.

Besides the usual problems with cronyism and corporate welfare (see Wichita-area economic development policy changes proposed for explanation of some problems), there are a few issues to consider regarding this item.

First, the site where the Starwood call center will be located is owned by Max Cole. He and his wife are significant campaign contributors to Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). Under the concept of pay-to-play laws that Wichita needs, Clendenin should refrain from voting on this matter.

Second, a table of salaries supplied in the agenda packet makes an implied promise that probably won’t be kept. The table shows numbers of jobs (actually full-time equivalents), the hourly pay rate, and the annual wage. The annual wage, in all cases, is 2,080 times the hourly rate, meaning it is assumed that workers will work 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.

Information from the Kansas Department of Commerce offers more detail. Initially, 495 full-time and 55 part-time jobs will be created. In year five, the total will be 860 full-time and 95 part-time total. There is also this notation: “The company will pay at least 50% of employee health insurance benefits.”

As you may be aware, one of the provisions of Obamacare is that if employees work over 30 hours per week, the employer must provide health insurance or be fined. As a result, many companies across the county are scaling back weekly work hours to less than 30.

We ought to ask if Starwood intends to hire employees who will work 40 hours per week, if they want to. Will the liberals on the Wichita City Council — Mayor Carl Brewer, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), and Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) — ask that Starwood operate under the standards of Obamacare? The table presents data as “full-time equivalents,” which provides room for Starwood to go either way.

Starwood is asking for a forgivable loan of $200,000 from Wichita, and another of the same amount from Sedgwick County. I asked the Kansas Department of Commerce if it would reveal the programs and incentives that Starwood will receive from the State of Kansas. It would not supply that information at this time, but I obtained the information by another means. The state describes its offer to Starwood as worth “up to $1,583,272.” Of this, $750,000 would be in the form of direct cash grants.

Here is a link to the relevant pages from the Wichita city council agenda: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentive Agreement with City of Wichita, Kansas. Also, from the Department of Commerce: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentives offered by State of Kansas.

Kansas freedom scorecard released

To help Kansans understand how legislators vote, Kansas Policy Institute has produced the Kansas Freedom Index for 2013.

Legislative scorecards like this are important as they let citizens know how legislators have actually voted, which is sometimes different from their campaign rhetoric, and even different from their current proclamations. Generally, scorecards include a large sampling of votes, so that no single issue paints a member into a corner.

James Franko of Kansas Policy Institute joins Bob Weeks on the Joseph Ashby Show to discuss the Kansas Freedom Index. Then, Bob runs down the scores for Wichita-area legislators.

The Kansas Freedom Index, as produced by KPI this year, is important and significant because it focuses on issues of economic freedom along with education freedom, which was added this year. So far, 45 bills have been included in the scorecard, and as the legislature is still in session and has at least two important bills to pass, there may be additions to the scorecard.

This year’s index is a continuation of the construction of indexes for past years, many of which may be found at Kansas Economic Freedom Index.

In a press release KPI president Dave Trabert said “An informed citizenry is an essential element of maintaining a free society. Having a deeper understanding of how legislation impacts education freedom, economic freedom and the constitutional principles of individual liberty and limited government allows citizens to better understand the known and often unknown consequences of legislative issues.”

He added, “Our 2012 index made clear that support of economic freedom isn’t an issue of political affiliation — the highest and lowest score in the Senate were both held by Republicans. The 2013 results bear out the same as a wide range of scores exists within both parties. Too often votes come down to parochial or personal issues and the idea of freedom is left on the legislature’s cutting room floor. Hopefully, the Kansas Freedom Index can start to recalibrate citizens and legislators towards supporting the freedoms of everyday Kansans and not be driven by politics.”

The importance of economic freedom

Milton Friedman: Capitalism and Freedom

Why is economic freedom important? Here’s what Milton Friedman had to say in the opening chapter of his monumental work Capitalism and Freedom some 50 years ago:

The Relation between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom

It is widely believed that politics and economics are separate and largely unconnected; that individual freedom is a political problem and material welfare an economic problem; and that any kind of political arrangements can be combined with any kind of economic arrangements. The chief contemporary manifestation of this idea is the advocacy of “democratic socialism” by many who condemn out of hand the restrictions on individual freedom imposed by “totalitarian socialism” in Russia, and who are persuaded that it is possible for a country to adopt the essential features of Russian economic arrangements and yet to ensure individual freedom through political arrangements. The thesis of this chapter is that such a view is a delusion, that there is an intimate connection between economics and politics, that only certain arrangements are possible and that, in particular, a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom.

Economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society. On the one hand, freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself. In the second place, economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.

For more about Friedman and his thoughts on economic freedom, see Milton Friedman, the Father of Economic Freedom.

Economic freedom is the most important factor in determining the well-being of people across the world. Where economic freedom exists, countries become wealthy. In introducing the Economic Freedom of the World report, its authors write: “Economic freedom has been shown in numerous peer-reviewed studies to promote prosperity and other positive outcomes. It is a necessary condition for democratic development. It liberates people from dependence on government in a planned economy, and allows them to make their own economic and political choices.”

One of the authors of the Economic Freedom of the World report, Robert Lawson, expands on the importance of economic freedom: “The big question is: Do countries that exhibit greater degrees of economic freedom perform better than those that do not? Much scholarly research has been and continues to be done to see if the index [of economic freedom] correlates with various measures of the good society: higher incomes, economic growth, income equality, gender equality, life expectancy, and so on. While there is scholarly debate about the exact nature of these relationships, the results are uniform: measures of economic freedom relate positively with these factors.

Without government, there would be no change: Wichita Mayor

It’s worse than President Obama saying “You didn’t build that.” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer tells us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway.

City of Wichita logoWhen President Barack Obama told business owners “You didn’t build that,” it set off a bit of a revolt. Those who worked hard to build businesses didn’t like to hear the president dismiss their efforts.

Underlying this episode is a serious question: What should be the role of government in the economy? Should government’s role be strictly limited, according to the Constitution? Or should government take an activist role in managing, regulating, subsidizing, and penalizing in order to get the results politicians and bureaucrats desire?

Historian Burton W. Folsom has concluded that it is the private sector — free people, not government — that drives innovation: “Time and again, experience has shown that while private enterprise, carried on in an environment of open competition, delivers the best products and services at the best price, government intervention stifles initiative, subsidizes inefficiency, and raises costs.”

But some don’t agree. They promote government management and intervention into the economy. Whatever their motivation might be, however it was they formed their belief, they believe that without government oversight of the economy, things won’t happen.

But in Wichita, it’s even worse. Without government, it is claimed that not only would we stop growing, economic progress would revert to a previous century.

Mayor Carl Brewer made these claims in a 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

In his remarks (transcript and video below), Brewer said “if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.”

When I heard him say that, I thought he’s just using rhetorical flair to emphasize a point. But later on he said this about those who advocate for economic freedom instead of government planning and control: “… then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.”

Brewer’s remarks are worse than “You didn’t build that.” The mayor of Wichita is telling us you can’t build that — not without government guidance and intervention, anyway.

Many people in Wichita, including the mayor and most on the city council and county commission, believe that the public-private partnership is the way to drive innovation and get things done. It’s really a shame that this attitude is taking hold in Wichita, a city which has such a proud tradition of entrepreneurship. The names that Wichitans are rightly proud of — Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, W.C. Coleman, Albert Alexander Hyde, Dan and Frank Carney, and Fred C. Koch — these people worked and built businesses without the benefit of public-private partnerships and government subsidy.

This tradition of entrepreneurship is disappearing, replaced by the public-private partnership and programs like Visioneering Wichita, sustainable communities, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), and rampant cronyism. Although when given a chance, voters are rejecting cronyism.

We don’t have long before the entrepreneurial spirit in Wichita is totally subservient to government. What can we do to return power to the people instead of surrendering it to government?

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, August 12, 2008:

“You know, I think that a lot of individuals have a lot of views and opinions about philosophy as to, whether or not, what role the city government should play inside of a community or city. But it’s always interesting to hear various different individuals’ philosophy or their view as to what that role is, and whether or not government or policy makers should have any type of input whatsoever.

“I would be afraid, because I’ve had an opportunity to hear some of the views, and under the models of what individuals’ logic and thinking is, if government had not played some kind of role in guiding and identifying how the city was going to grow, how any city was going to grow, I’d be afraid of what that would be. Because we would still be in covered wagons and horses. There would be no change.

“Because the stance is let’s not do anything. Just don’t do anything. Hands off. Just let it happen. So if society, if technology, and everything just goes off and leaves you behind, that’s okay. Just don’t do anything. I just thank God we have individuals that have enough gumption to step forward and say I’m willing to make a change, I’m willing to make a difference, I’m willing to improve the community. Because they don’t want to acknowledge the fact that improving the quality of life, improving the various different things, improving bringing in businesses, cleaning up street, cleaning up neighborhoods, doing those things, helping individuals feel good about themselves: they don’t want to acknowledge that those types of things are important, and those types of things, there’s no way you can assess or put a a dollar amount to it.

“Not everyone has the luxury to live around a lake, or be able to walk out in their backyard or have someone come over and manicure their yard for them, not everyone has that opportunity. Most have to do that themselves.

“But they want an environment, sometimes you have to have individuals to come in and to help you, and I think that this is one of those things that going to provide that.

“This community was a healthy thriving community when I was a kid in high school. I used to go in and eat pizza after football games, and all the high school students would go and celebrate.

“But, just like anything else, things become old, individuals move on, they’re forgotten in time, maybe the city didn’t make the investments that they should have back then, and they walk off and leave it.

“But new we have someone whose interested in trying to revive it. In trying to do something a little different. In trying to instill pride in the neighborhood, trying to create an environment where it’s enticing for individuals to want to come back there, or enticing for individuals to want to live there.

“So I must commend those individuals for doing that. But if we say we start today and say that we don’t want to start taking care of communities, then tomorrow we’ll be saying we don’t want more technology, and then the following day we’ll be saying we don’t want public safety, and it won’t take us very long to get back to where we were at back when the city first settled.

“So I think this is something that’s a good venture, it’s a good thing for the community, we’ve heard from the community, we’ve seen the actions of the community, we saw it on the news what these communities are doing because they know there’s that light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve seen it on the news. They’ve been reporting it in the media, what this particular community has been doing, and what others around it.

“And you know what? The city partnered with them, to help them generate this kind of energy and this type of excitement and this type of pride.

“So I think this is something that’s good. And I know that there’s always going to be people who are naysayers, that they’re just not going to be happy. And I don’t want you to let let this to discourage you, and I don’t want the comments that have been heard today to discourage the citizens of those neighborhoods. And to continue to doing the great work that they’re doing, and to continue to have faith, and to continue that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that there is a value that just can’t be measured of having pride in your community and pride in your neighborhood, and yes we do have a role to be able to help those individuals trying to help themselves.”

To boost jobs and prosperity, Kansas should cut spending

In order to increase jobs and prosperity in Kansas, we should seek to reduce state spending as much as possible, thereby leaving more resources in the productive private sector.

Kansas Capitol

In the debate over reducing and eventually eliminating the income tax in Kansas, those who oppose income tax reduction say it will simply shift the burden of taxation to others, in the form of sales and property taxes. This is true only if we decide to keep spending at the same level. We could cut spending in response to reduced revenue, but it is argued that state spending is a good thing, a source of wealth that Kansas should continue to rely on.

The idea that government spending is a generator of wealth and prosperity is true only beyond a certain minimal level of spending. We benefit from government provision of things like national defense, public safety, and a court system. (There are those who believe that even these could be provided by the private sector rather than markets.) But once government grows beyond these minimal core functions, it is virtually certain that markets — that is, free people trading in the private sector — can produce a wider variety of better goods and services at lower cost.

We also have to realize that government spending has a cost that must be paid. Advocates of government spending point to the salary paid to a government worker and how that money gets spent in the economy, producing jobs. These advocates, however, do not recognize the source of the worker’s salary, which is money taken from someone through taxation (or through borrowing and inflation at the federal government level). The loss of that money to government has a cost in the form of the reduced economic activity of those who paid the taxes.

If this loss was economically equivalent to the gain, we might be unconcerned. 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 nature of government spending gets it 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.” (Slash Expenditure to Balance the Budget)

An example in Kansas is the special interest group that benefits from highway construction. They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. The group 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. They would happily build a highway to nowhere.

As Miron explained, groups like this will spend almost unlimited money in order to receive appropriations from the government. It’s easier than competing in markets, and that’s a big problem with government spending — decision are made by the centralized few, not the many dispersed actors in markets.

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, persuading us that government schools are producing an educated citizenry. They also need to defend the capture of Kansas spending on schools by special interest groups that benefit from this spending.

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, as that is the measure of the size of government. That will allow us to cut 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.

Developer welfare expanded in Kansas

Money Grabber

This week the Kansas House of Representatives considered a bill that would expand the application of tax increment financing (TIF) and community improvement district taxes. The bill, HB 2086, is not a major expansion, but is still harmful.

On Monday the bill failed to pass, with 61 members voting in favor, and 60 against. (63 votes are needed to pass a bill.)

On the following day, Rep. Scott Schwab made a motion to reconsider. If agreed to, Schwab’s motion would force another vote on the passage of the bill. The motion passed, and when the vote on the bill was tallied, it had passed with 81 votes.

Democrats who changed their votes from No to Yes are Barbara Ballard, Brandon Whipple, Ed Trimmer, Jerry Henry, Julie Menghini, Nancy Lusk, Patricia Sloop, Paul Davis, Stan Frownfelter, Tom Burroughs and Valdenia Winn.

Republicans who changed their votes from No to Yes are Dennis Hedke, James Todd, Kelly Meigs, Kevin Jones, Marty Read, Ramon Gonzalez, Scott Schwab, and Vern Swanson.

One Republican, Marc Rhoades, changed his vote from Yes to No.

The original coalition of votes that defeated the bill on Monday was a mix of free-market Republicans and Democrats. The free-market members vote against this bill because it is contrary to the principals of capitalism. Many Democrats vote against bills like this because they see it as welfare for greedy developers or other business interests. An example of the latter is Rep. Ed Trimmer, who on the Kansas Economic Freedom Index for last year scored very near the bottom in terms of voting for economic freedom.

But somehow, he and the other Democrats listed above were persuaded to change their votes.

(Click here to open spreadsheet in new window.)

Wichita STAR bonds project not good for capitalism

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers approval of the project plan for a STAR bonds project in Wichita.

The formation of the district has already been approved. This action by the council will consider the development plan and the actual authorization to spend money.

If approved, the city will proceed under the State of Kansas STAR bonds program. The city will sell bonds and turn over the proceeds to the developer. As bond payments become due, sales tax revenue will make the payments.

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. Estimates are that annual revenue available for the bonds will be over $5,000,000.

For this district, the time period used to determine the base level of sales tax is February 2011 through January 2012. A new Cabela’s store opened in March 2012, and it’s located in the STAR bonds district. 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, the state has been receiving around $2 million per year in sales tax from this store. 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 project’s developer.

Some questions

Curiously, the city doesn’t provide a cost-benefit study for this project. This is the usual mechanism the city relies on as justification for investments in economic development projects.

Often developers ask government for incentives because they claim the project is not economically feasible without assistance. Is that the case with this development? If not, why the need for subsidies?

And if taxpayer subsidy is required for this development, we need to ask what it is about Kansas that discourages this type of business investment.

STAR bonds should be opposed as they turn over tax policy 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 can simply 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. This 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, or 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 follow.

Government spending programs like STAR bonds are sold to legislators as jobs programs. Development, it is said, will not happen unless project developers receive incentives through these spending programs. Since no legislator wants to be seen voting against jobs, many are susceptible to the seductive promise of jobs.

But often these same legislators are in favor of tax cuts to create jobs. This is the case in the Kansas House, where many Republican members are in favor of reducing the state’s income tax as a way of creating economic growth and jobs. On this issue, these members are correct.

But many of the same members voted 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 who feel they have the necessary knowledge to direct the investment of public funds. One thing is for sure: the state and its bureaucrats have the power to make these investments. They just don’t have — they can’t have — the knowledge as to whether these are wise.

What to do

The STAR bonds program is an “active investor” approach to economic development. Its government spending on business leads to taxes that others have to pay. That has a harmful effect on other business, both existing and those that wish to form.

Professor Art Hall of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business is critical of this approach to economic development. In his paper Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy, Hall quotes Alan Peters and Peter Fisher: “The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state and local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering expectations about their ability to micro-manage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.”

In the same paper, Hall writes this regarding “benchmarking” — the bidding wars for large employers that Kansas and many of its cities employ: “Kansas can break out of the benchmarking race by developing a strategy built on embracing dynamism. Such a strategy, far from losing opportunity, can distinguish itself by building unique capabilities that create a different mix of value that can enhance the probability of long-term economic success through enhanced opportunity. Embracing dynamism can change how Kansas plays the game.”

In making his argument, Hall cites research on the futility of chasing large employers as an economic development strategy: “Large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. To quote from the most comprehensive study: ‘The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.’”

There is also substantial research that is it young firms — distinguished from small business in general — that are the engine of economic growth for the future. We can’t detect which of the young firms will blossom into major success — or even small-scale successes. The only way to nurture them is through economic policies that all companies can benefit from. Reducing tax rates is an example of such a policy. Government spending on specific companies through programs like STAR bonds is an example of precisely the wrong policy.

We need to move away from economic development based on this active investor approach. We need to advocate for policies at all levels of government that lead to sustainable economic development. We need political leaders who have the wisdom to realize this, and the courage to act appropriately. Which is to say, to not act in most circumstances.

Public Hearing Considering the Adoption of a STAR Bond Project Plan for the K-96 Greenwich Star Bond Projec… by

Economic development incentives questioned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Koch profiled in Forbes

The new issue of Forbes features a cover story on Charles and David Koch. It is very interesting and seems a balanced and fair article, but there are a few things that stand out. (Inside The Koch Empire: How The Brothers Plan To Reshape America.)

An example: “Both Kochs innately understand that — unlike the populist appeal of their fellow midwestern billionaire Warren Buffett and his tax-the-rich advocacy — their message of pure, raw capitalism is a much tougher sell, even among capitalists.”

I think the author should have written “even among business executives” rather than capitalists. That’s because Charles Koch has been outspoken about business cronyism, in September writing in The Wall Street Journal: “Far too many businesses have been all too eager to lobby for maintaining and increasing subsidies and mandates paid by taxpayers and consumers. This growing partnership between business and government is a destructive force, undermining not just our economy and our political system, but the very foundations of our culture.”

I would imagine that most of the business leaders seeking government subsidies and mandates consider themselves capitalists. That’s a problem.

Then: the description of “pure” capitalism as raw. I think we’re starting to realize just how raw politics and government have become. Capitalism, however, is a system based on respect for property and peaceful, beneficial exchange. Tom G. Palmer in the introduction to The Morality of Capitalism explains: “Far from being an amoral arena for the clash of interests, as capitalism is often portrayed by those who seek to undermine or destroy it, capitalist interaction is highly structured by ethical norms and rules. Indeed, capitalism rests on a rejection of the ethics of loot and grab, the means by which most wealth enjoyed by the wealthy has been acquired in other economic and political systems. … It’s only under conditions of capitalism that people commonly become wealthy without being criminals.”

Often corporations are criticized by liberals as being too focused on short-term gains, that corporate raiders buy firms, gut them, chop them up, sell off assets, lay off employees, pile on debt — you know the story as used against Mitt Romney. But look at how Koch Industries operates:

Charles spent $6 billion upfront to buy Georgia-Pacific, and rather than satisfy quarterly earnings estimates or dividend-hungry investors, he immediately directed the new division’s cash flow toward paying down the $15 billion in liabilities that it inherited. …

The Koch long-game strategy is absolute: If it makes sense to them, the Kochs stay with the plan, no matter how burdensome or how long it takes. “We buy something not to milk it but to build it, to take its capabilities and add to them, and build new businesses,” [Charles] Koch says.

That sounds like a business strategy the left should embrace, not vilify.

Another curious statement by the author: “Given their strict adherence to the principals of transparent free markets, the Kochs’ secrecy seems hypocritical.” This is curious because transparency is an attribute not often associated with advocacy for free markets. Transparency is more associated with government as a desirable goal. Charles and David Koch are private citizens, not agents of government.

There’s good news near the end of the article:

The brothers’ new political emphasis in the coming year? Fighting corporate welfare.

While Obama talks about getting rid of lobbyists, Charles says, the “only way he can achieve that stated objective is to get government out of the business of giving goodies. That’s like flies to honey,” he adds. “The first thing we’ve got to get rid of is business welfare and entitlements.”

There’s much more in the article, available at Inside The Koch Empire: How The Brothers Plan To Reshape America.

Nation can no longer afford wind tax credit

From The Hill:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Wednesday said the nation’s fiscal situation has become so dire that the government can no longer afford to maintain a wind power production credit that has been in place since in 1992.

“I think there is certainly the largest realization that we’ve ever had that it’s time for it to end,” Alexander said at a Wednesday event hosted by The Hill and sponsored by the American Energy Alliance.

In a longer story, The Hill reports on the efforts of U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican representing the Kansas fourth district (Wichita metropolitan area and surrounding counties) to end the wind production tax credit:

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) said he hopes that conversation leads to the elimination of all energy subsidies.

Pompeo has led the House charge against the credit. He got 46 other House GOP members to sign a September letter urging Boehner to nix the provision.

Pompeo said the wind credit’s history is instructive when debating the benefits of tax carve-outs for specific industries.

He pointed to a steep decline in wind turbine installations when the credit last lapsed in 2004 as proof that subsidies distort markets and investment. And planned projects and investments already are down for next year as a result of the credit’s cloudy future.

“I think that’s further evidence that it’s non-economic,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo has been at the forefront of efforts to end subsidies that distort energy markets. He and Alexander recently contributed an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, which may be read at Puff, the Magic Drag on the Economy: Time to let the pernicious production tax credit for wind power blow away. Pompeo also develops the argument in Governor Romney is right: End the wind production tax credit and Mike Pompeo: We need capitalism, not cronyism. The special interests that benefit from cronyism have struck back, but unsuccessfully: Kerr’s attacks on Pompeo’s energy policies fall short.

I, Pencil: The Movie

“The spontaneous configuration of creative human energies, of millions of people, with their various skills and talents, organizing voluntarily in response to human necessity and desire — as if led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of the intention.”

This is part of the narration from a new short movie I, Pencil, produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Lawrence W. Reed, President of Foundation for Economic Education says about this movie: “For more than half a century, Leonard Read’s classic story has opened eyes and changed minds by the hundreds of thousands. It humbles even the high and mighty as it reveals the wondrous achievements of individuals whose contributions are coordinated by nothing more than incentives and market prices. This film guarantees that the insights of Read’s humble pencil will continue to work their magic for many years to come!”

A companion website I, Pencil, a film series from CEI has video of additional commentary, curriculum, educational resources, and many other items of interest in learning about how free markets work to bring us not only the things we need, but the things we want that make life better.

Capitalism and business: The same thing?

Is “capitalism” and “business” the same thing? Most people would probably answer yes, but that’s a mistake.

In a video from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, Professor Steve Horwitz explains the difference: “He refutes the often recited claim that ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America’ by explaining that pro-business legislation encourages behavior that is not beneficial to society or the business itself. He suggests that, in a free market, factors such as profit and competition encourage behavior that ultimately benefits society. Professor Horwitz illustrates that pro-business legislation restricts progress and therefore caters to the interests of industry rather than to consumers, whereas ‘supporters of free markets are ultimately pro-human and pro-people because it is through markets that we get the most innovation and we get the most goods and the cheapest prices.’”

Still, you may be asking: Isn’t business and free-market capitalism the same thing? 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.”

We see this confusion daily in Wichita and Kansas. Many members of the Wichita City Council — Democrats and Republicans — hold pro-business views. But the cronyism — the continual creation of subsidies, preferential treatment, no-bid contracts, and general intervention into the economy — destroys capitalism.

What about the local chamber of commerce? Isn’t it a bastion of capitalism? Here’s Stephen Moore: “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.” (Local chambers of commerce: tax machines in disguise.)

This accurately describes the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Earlier this year it decided that eight government subsidy programs supporting the Ambassador Hotel were not enough: The Chamber said there must be a ninth.

Fortunately, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce does a much better job supporting capitalism and free market principles.

At the state government level we also have to be watchful, even though we have a conservative governor and legislature (sort of). Earlier this year Kansas Governor Sam Brownback supported extending the STAR bonds program, thereby giving life support to cronyism for another five years. Kansas STAR bonds vote a test for capitalism. A majority of legislators supported him. Other anti-capitalist programs have been started or expanded at his initiative.

Koch articles draw critics, but few factual

Two large articles in the Wichita Eagle regarding Charles and David Koch of Wichita-based Koch Industries have attracted many comments, and many are not based on facts.

The two articles are The Kochs’ quest to save America and Charles Koch relentless in pursuing his goals.

A curious irony is the claim by many comment writers that Charles and David Koch want to buy America, while at the same time they are running it into the ground: “The koch bros. are funding the conversion of OUR COUNTRY into another third world country.”

Even if it was possible to buy America — whatever that means — why would someone destroy it first?

Another common thread in the comments is that Charles and David Koch didn’t complain about government spending, subsidy, regulation, etc. before President Barack Obama was elected. In fact, they have been working to promote free markets and economic freedom for many decades. Charles Koch and two others founded what became the Cato Institute in 1974, nearly four decades ago. Even earlier: A recent issue of Koch Industries Discovery newsletter contains a story titled “Don’t subsidize me.” Here’s an excerpt:

When Charles Koch was in his 20s, he attended a business function hosted by his father. At that event, Fred Koch introduced Charles to a local oilman.

When the independent oilman politely asked about the young man’s interests, Charles began talking about all he was doing to promote economic freedom.

“Wow!” said the oilman, who was so impressed he wanted to introduce the young bachelor to his eligible daughter.

But when Charles mentioned he was in favor of eliminating the government’s oil import quota, which subsidized domestic producers, the oilman exploded in rage.

“Your father ought to lock you in a cell!” he yelled, jabbing his finger into Charles’ chest. “You’re worse than a Communist!”

It seems the oilman was all for the concept of free markets — unless it meant he had to compete on equal terms.

Under oath

For more than 50 years, Charles Koch has consistently promoted economic freedom, even when it was not in the company’s immediate financial interest.

In the 1960s, Koch was willing to testify before a powerful Congressional committee that he was against the oil import quota — a very popular political measure at the time.

“I think it’s fair to say my audience was less than receptive,” recalls Koch.

Years later, Koch warned an independent energy association about the dangers of subsidies and mandates.

“We avoid the short-run temptation to impose regulatory burdens on competitors. We don’t lobby for subsidies that penalize taxpayers for our benefit.

“This is our philosophy because we believe this will produce the most favorable conditions in the long run,” Koch said.

Many comments take the company to task for accepting oil and ethanol subsidies. Koch Industries, as a refiner of oil, blends ethanol with the gasoline it produces in order to meet federal mandates that require ethanol usage. Even though Koch opposed subsidies for ethanol — as it opposes all subsidies — Koch accepted the subsidies. A company newsletter explained “Once a law is enacted, we are not going to place our company and our employees at a competitive disadvantage by not participating in programs that are available to our competitors.” (The tax credit subsidy program for ethanol has ended, but there is still the mandate for its use in gasoline.)

Regarding oil subsidies, the programs that are most commonly cited (percentage depletion and expensing of intangible drilling costs) apply to producers of oil — the companies that drill holes and pump up oil. Koch Industries doesn’t do that. The company doesn’t benefit from these programs.

Other comments charge that Koch Industries wants to end regulation so that it can pollute as much as it wants. This is another ridiculous charge not based on facts.

A statement on the KochFacts website states “recent critics have also claimed that Koch is one of the nation’s top 10 polluters. This study confuses pollution with permitted emissions, which are carefully regulated by the U.S. EPA and other agencies. The index labels as ‘polluters’ Ford Motor, General Motors, GE, Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, Sony, Honeywell, Berkshire Hathaway, Kimberly Clark, Anheuser Busch and Goodyear — corporations, like Koch companies, with significant manufacturing in the U.S. Emissions, a necessary by-product of manufacturing, are strictly monitored and legally permitted by federal, state and local governments.”

Say: Didn’t the U.S. government take over General Motors, and continues to hold a large stake in the company? And GE and Berkshire Hathaway: Aren’t those run by personal friends of Barack Obama?

The reality is that manufacturing has become much more efficient with regards to emissions, and Koch Industries companies have lead the way. One report from the company illustrates such progress: “Over the last three years, Koch Carbon has spent $10 million to enhance environmental performance, including $5 million for dust abatement at one of its petroleum coke handling facilities. These investments have paid off. In 2008, Koch Carbon’s reportable emissions were 6.5 percent less than in 2000, while throughput increased 10.4 percent.”

Even when Koch Industries does not agree with the need for specific regulations, the company, nonetheless, complies. Writing about an increase in regulation in the 2007 book The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company, Charles Koch explained the importance of regulatory compliance: “This reality required is to make a cultural change. We needed to be uncompromising, to expect 100 percent of our employees to comply 100 percent of the time with complex and ever-changing government mandates. Striving to comply with every law does not mean agreeing with every law. But, even when faced with laws we think are counter-productive, we must first comply. Only then, from a credible position, can we enter into a dialogue with regulatory agencies to determine alternatives that are more beneficial. If these efforts fail, we can then join with others in using education and/or political efforts to change the law.”

Koch companies have taken leadership roles in environmental compliance, explains another KochFacts page: “In 2000, EPA recognized Koch Petroleum Group for being ‘the first petroleum company to step forward’ to reach a comprehensive Clean Air Act agreement involving EPA and state regulatory agencies in Minnesota and Texas. Despite fundamental policy disagreements, then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner acknowledged Koch’s cooperation. She characterized the agreement as ‘innovative and comprehensive’ and praised the ‘unprecedented cooperation’ of Koch in stepping forward ahead of its industry peers.” Browner was no friend of industry, and had a “record as a strict enforcer of environmental laws during the Clinton years,” according to the New York Times.

What may really gall liberals and Koch critics is this: They believe that a powerful and expansive government is good for the country. But what we have is a complicated machine that a company like General Electric can exploit for huge profits, all without creating things that consumers value. Charles Koch calls for an end to this, as he wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal: “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.”

The political Left just can’t believe that anyone would write that and really mean it.

What’s wrong with Charles and David Koch?

In a column on his website, Fran Tarkenton wonders why Charles and David Koch are the targets of so much criticism. He writes: “So why do we vilify people who represent the greatness of America? Is it just because they have different political beliefs? It’s time to stop demonizing people who do things the right way and generate tremendous wealth — and value to all Americans. Those are the people we should celebrate, whether you agree with their politics or not! If we want to preserve America as the great place it is, we need more entrepreneurs, more innovators — and a free market to foster them.”

Tarkenton writes of “how poisonous our political atmosphere is.” Here’s an example: A common complaint by leftists is that Wall Street is overly focused on short-term results — the quarterly profit numbers — rather than on long-term investment and growth. Koch Industries, however, is privately held, and in a recent Wichita Eagle article, a company official said “[private ownership] allows us to focus on the long term as opposed to quarter to quarter.” You’d think liberals would be happy with a company that can afford to ignore the short term and focus on the long term, but instead they criticize Koch for not being public, wondering what it is the company has to hide.

By the way, this focus on the long term may be why since 1960 the value of Koch Industries has increased faster than the value of the broad-based S&P index of the 500 largest U.S. Companies, by a factor of 16 times.

Tarkenton several times mentions Charles and David Koch’s fight against cronyism. Contrast this with General Electric, a company headed by a friend of President Obama. A report from ProPublica shows some of the lengths that GE goes to avoid paying taxes: “General Electric’s tax department is famous for inventing ways to pay Uncle Sam less. So it should come as no surprise that its CEO, Jeff Immelt, is in the crosshairs as the new chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. … GE’s tax department is well known for its size, skill and hiring of former government officials. About 20 years ago, GE’s tax employees totaled a few hundred and were decentralized. Today, there are almost 1,000. The department’s strong suit? Reducing the taxes GE reports for earnings purposes.”

A New York Times article explains the lengths that GE went to to protect a tax loophole that it benefited from. The tax system is a major vehicle for the implementation of cronyism.

The shelters are so crucial to G.E.’s bottom line that when Congress threatened to let the most lucrative one expire in 2008, the company came out in full force. G.E. officials worked with dozens of financial companies to send letters to Congress and hired a bevy of outside lobbyists.

The head of its tax team, Mr. Samuels, met with Representative Charles B. Rangel, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which would decide the fate of the tax break. As he sat with the committee’s staff members outside Mr. Rangel’s office, Mr. Samuels dropped to his knee and pretended to beg for the provision to be extended — a flourish made in jest, he said through a spokeswoman.

That day, Mr. Rangel reversed his opposition to the tax break, according to other Democrats on the committee.

The following month, Mr. Rangel and Mr. Immelt stood together at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem as G.E. announced that its foundation had awarded $30 million to New York City schools, including $11 million to benefit various schools in Mr. Rangel’s district.

Other companies that are revered by the political left play the game too. A report from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center explained how Starbucks manipulated the tax system to its benefit: “By shifting paper profits among divisions, firms can reduce their overall tax liability. Such efforts will lead to unnecessary accounting and compliance costs for firms and unnecessary enforcement costs for the IRS. For example, The New York Times reported that Starbucks successfully added a provision to the bill that deems coffee roasting, but not coffee preparation, a manufacturing activity. This provision gives Starbucks a tax incentive to increase the bean prices charged to its retail outlets, making the roasting part of the business more profitable and the retail part of the business less profitable. Such efforts could decrease Starbucks’s tax bill, but serve no other discernable public policy purpose.”

What’s Wrong with the Koch Brothers?
By Fran Tarkenton

To succeed in football and in business, I worked with a lot of people. I learned how to figure out who the great people were, people who were doing the right thing, people with great ethics who I could trust and learn a lot from. I also learned how to identify people who weren’t trying to do the right thing.

It’s very important in business to be able to tell the difference, because a great mentor like Sam Walton, Bernie Marcus, or Robert Woodruff can have a monumental impact, but a bad influence can cause big problems.

This political season, there has been one business name that has been demonized and vilified above all others: the Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries. They have been demonized as right-wing zealots, and I’ve even seen the work of scholars dismissed just because their organization has some connection to the Koch brothers.

The kneejerk attacks and venom that comes out whenever their names are even mentioned really bothers me, and it’s a sign of just how poisonous our political atmosphere is. I don’t know the Koch brothers personally, but I know people who do, and who know them well. And I’ve also been able to observe the things they do, and the way they conduct themselves publicly. Everything I’m seeing and hearing tells me that these are exemplary business leaders who we should be celebrating, not attacking.

Start by looking at how Koch Industries grew to become the juggernaut it is today. The family patriarch, Fred Koch, built the company on an innovative process he developed in the oil business. Then his sons grew the company the right way. They didn’t cozy up to the government for subsidies, handouts, or preferential treatment. Instead, they came up with great ideas that solved problems in the lives of people, ideas that provided real value. Their business empire was built on innovation, reinvention, and hard work, not cronyism. I greatly admire that! And they’ve donated millions to medical research and the arts, among other causes.

Now, the Koch brothers are more known for the money they spend on political activities. They fund a variety of think tanks and organizations, all dedicated to promoting free market practices and small government. And that is where they are demonized and tarred and feathered by their political opponents. But from everything I have ever seen, what is remarkable is that none of their political activities are dedicated to cronyism, setting their company up for a big windfall if it wins the debate. Rather, they are advocating for more competition, reduced barriers to entry for new players, and less connection between the board room and the DC halls of power, not a special place at the table.

The only reason for doing that is because they really believe in it. Why should we demonize people who deeply believe in something and do whatever they can to promote it? If the Koch brothers spent millions of dollars on politicians who would subsidize their products and outlaw their competitors, that would be wrong. But instead, they advocate for an end to market distortions, government interventions in the private sector, and cronyism in general. They’re not trying to get more of the government pie; they just really believe they have a vision to help America, because they love this country and the values it stands for.

The truth is that everything we have in this country is because of entrepreneurs, large and small. From the corner store up to the most successful business people — whether conservatives like the Koch brothers, liberals like Steve Jobs at Apple, or libertarians like Jeff Bezos of Amazon — the great wealth of this country comes from people helping other people by creating value. Without value, when businesspeople are just in it for themselves and don’t care about value, only about accruing benefits to themselves, everything falls apart — including the business itself! Those who do create value are the reason we have the great society we have. Since their business began, the Koch brothers have been part of the value-creating class, not the crony class of business owners.

So why do we vilify people who represent the greatness of America? Is it just because they have different political beliefs? It’s time to stop demonizing people who do things the right way and generate tremendous wealth — and value to all Americans. Those are the people we should celebrate, whether you agree with their politics or not!

If we want to preserve America as the great place it is, we need more entrepreneurs, more innovators — and a free market to foster them.

And in case you’re wondering, the Koch brothers did not approve this message.