Economic development in Sedgwick County

The issue of awarding an economic development incentive reveals much as to why the Wichita-area economy has not grown.

Of note is this section where Commissioner Richard Ranzau questioned a county official. Ranzau brought up the fact that the commission had changed its policy so that forgivable loans are no longer used. Chronis said this is not a forgivable loan. Ranzau asked “what is it?” Chronis replied it is a loan. Ranzau asked if the company had to repay the loan. Chronis said if they don’t fulfill their end of the agreement, then yes, they will have to pay it back. If the company does not repay the loan, this is because the company has met the employment targets, and the county gets its repayment in the form of economic benefit to the community and to Sedgwick County government, he added.

In the end, Chronis admitted that this agreement has the same elements of past forgivable loans, but is different because now there is better protection in case the company does not satisfy commitments.

From December 2014.

At the December 17, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission an economic development incentive was considered. The proceedings are of interest as a window into how economic development works.

The proposal was that Sedgwick County will make a loan to Figeac Aero in the amount of $250,000 as an economic development incentive in conjunction with its acquisition of a local company and a contemplated expansion. It’s likely the county will also participate in forgiving property taxes, although that decision will be made by the City of Wichita on the county’s behalf.

Sedgwick County Chief Financial Officer Chris Chronis presented the item to the commissioners, telling them “the company has been very successful in Europe.”

Chronis also presented the benefit-cost analysis from calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. He said the proposed county property tax abatement has a value of just over $473,000, although the award of the exemption is controlled by the city. The present value of county’s cost over ten years, considering both the property tax abatement and the $250,000 loan, is $687,793. The present value of the benefit is just over $1,000,000, so the county’s net benefit is $317,834. Therefore, the net public financial benefit ratio to the county of 1.46 to one.

The final review of the contract is still to be performed. Chronis asked the commission for authorizing him to execute an agreement “in substantially the same form as the one we have given you, subject to final review by the county counselor.”

Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked if the commission had in its possession the final form of the document. The answer was no. Chronis said that the document is substantially in final form, subject to some tweaking. Later questioning by Ranzau revealed that there are many parts of the contract that are not present. The agreement the commissioners had referenced the missing parts, such as a security agreement.

Ranzau also brought up the fact that the commission had changed its policy so that forgivable loans are no longer used. Chronis said this is not a forgivable loan. Ranzau asked “what is it?” Chronis replied it is a loan. Ranzau asked if the company had to repay the loan. Chronis said if they don’t fulfill their end of the agreement, then yes, they will have to pay it back. If the company does not repay the loan, this is because the company has met the employment targets, and the county gets its repayment in the form of economic benefit to the community and to Sedgwick County government, he added.

In the end, Chronis admitted that this agreement has the same elements of past forgivable loans, but is different because now there is better protection in case the company does not satisfy commitments.

In support of the incentive, Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce president Gary Plummer said he is here in a “positive environment.” He told the commissioners that staff worked very hard. He mentioned how much tax the company has paid to Sedgwick County. He said this is a great moment in Sedgwick County economic development history.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition Chair Gary Schmitt appeared to mention the return to the county in the form of tax revenue.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition president Tim Chase promoted the security that the county is receiving in case the loan needs to be repaid. There is a lien on tangible assets, for example. But the company still must agree to specific provisions for the security of the loan. Chase said this is “not, in any way, shape, or form a done deal.”

French air parts maker Figeac has plans to grow in WichitaCommissioner Karl Peterjohn mentioned a newspaper article from May that quoted Figeac Aero’s vice president of business development as saying “the heart of Figeac North America will be Wichita.” Chase explained there had been personnel changes since then. Also, Chase said that Figeac hired a consultant that advised the company to inquire about “standard” incentives. When GWEDC did not supply an answer the company considered satisfactory, Chase said he was told “that starts the clock over. We’re going to begin looking at other locations.” The article Peterjohn referred to is French air parts maker Figeac has plans to grow in Wichita May 9, 2014 Wichita Eagle.

There was a question about state participation in incentives. Chronis did not know what, if anything, the state would be offering.

In further discussion, Ranzau said that Figeac has already bought a company here and is hiring. They have plans to be here, he said, meaning that the “but for” argument does not apply. By his calculation, if the average salary was reduced by 12 cents per hour, that would amount to the value of the incentive Sedgwick County is offering, $250,000 over five years. He expressed his concern that the contract the commission is being asked to approve is incomplete, and that the City of Wichita has yet to vote on it. Ranzau made a motion that the item be tabled until the agreement is complete. That motion failed, with only Peterjohn voting in support.

In other discussion, Ranzau repeated his concern over approving an incomplete document, telling commissioners that this would not be done in the private sector, adding that this is what it means that you can’t “run government like a business.”

In his remarks, Peterjohn quoted a government official famously who said “you have to pass the document to find out what’s in it.” Peterjohn expressed concern that the analysis provided by CEDBR is based on numbers provided by the company. This qualification is standard, he said, and always a concern.

The measure passed by a vote of three to two, with Peterjohn and Ranzau opposed.

Excerpt from the meeting

Discussion

Capacity
The labor force in the Wichita metropolitan area is about 298,000 people. The 50 jobs to be created in the first year by Figeac represents 0.017 percent of the labor force, or one job for every 5,960 people in the labor force.

Another way to place the 50 Figeac jobs in context is to look at them in comparison to jobs created, not the labor force. In Kansas in recent years, job gains in the private sector are about six percent of employment. (Figures are not available for Wichita alone.) Employment in the Wichita metropolitan area is about 284,000. Six percent of that is 17,040. So the 50 Figeac jobs are now 0.29 percent of all jobs created in a year, or one out of 341 jobs.

It’s good that 50 people will have jobs. Recall, however, that the president of the chamber of commerce told commissioners that staff worked very hard to acquire these jobs. He called this “a great moment.”

This illustrates a problem with targeted economic development incentives. Making deals takes a lot of time and effort. Three top officials attended the commission meeting, and they will likely attend the Wichita city council meeting where the incentive is presented. Much time of county staff was required.

Our economic development agencies and local governments do not have the capacity to strike enough deals to account for significant job growth. A better strategy is to create an environment where business firms can form and expand organically, without requiring or depending on government assistance.

Is the incentive necessary?
The quotation from a newspaper article seven months old that described Figeac’s commitment to grow in Wichita raises suspicions of what is commonly alleged: That companies make location and expansion plans for business reasons. Then, some may seek incentives, even though the decision has already been made. Local economic development officials are eager to accommodate the request for incentives, as they need to justify their existence and notch a few sure wins. Most politicians, of course, are more than willing to take credit for creating jobs.

Are there other incentives?
The Sedgwick County commissioners had to make a judgment on the wisdom of incentives without knowledge of all the incentives the company may receive. The City of Wichita had not acted on a similar loan request and property tax abatements. The State of Kansas would not disclose what incentives it had offered to Figeac.

We don’t know, but a program that Figeac may qualify for is PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This program allows companies to retain 95 percent of the payroll withholding tax of employees. This can be a substantial sum. Tables available at the Kansas Department of Revenue indicate that for a single person with no exemptions earning $40,000 annually, the withholding would be $27 per week, or $1,404 annually. For a married person with two children, withholding would be $676 annually. Under PEAK, the company retains 95 percent of these values.

(Since unmarried workers have higher withholding rates than married workers, and those with fewer exemptions have more withheld than those with many, does this provide incentives for companies in the PEAK program to adjust their hiring preferences?)

Who benefits?
As is common, incentives are justified by a benefit-cost analysis that purports to show that more comes in to government coffers than goes out due to the incentive. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn.

Here’s a question: In his presentation, the county’s chief financial officer said the benefit to the county over ten years is $317,834. What will the county do with that money? Will it reduce taxes by that amount? That is what would benefit the taxpayers that paid to provide the incentive. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the benefit is spent.

The entire process assumes that these benefit-cost ratios are valid. This is far from certain, as follows:

  1. The benefits in the calculation are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of projected higher tax revenues collected by governments. This is very different from the profits that private sector companies earn from their customers in voluntary market transactions.

  2. Government claims that in order to get these “benefits,” incentives are necessary. But often the new economic activity (relocation, expansion, etc.) would have happened without the incentives.

  3. Even if government collects more tax by offering incentives, it should not be the goal of government to grow just for the sake of growing.

  4. Why is it that many companies are able to grow without incentives, but only a few companies require incentives? What is special about these companies? Why do some companies receive incentives year after year?

Diversification
wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentrationWe’ve been told for many years that Wichita needs to diversify its economy. The Wichita economy is highly dependent on one industry — aircraft manufacturing — and Figeac is in the aircraft industry. When citizens have told the Wichita City Council that offering incentives to aircraft companies serves to make it more difficult to diversify, the president and chair of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce complained in an op-ed: “Would the anti-business voices’ diversification strategy be to send aviation jobs to other cities and states, thereby crippling our economy? Where’s the logic in that?” This says a great deal about the problems with economic development in Wichita, namely that our leaders see no difference between business and capitalism, and that the need for diversification is merely a slogan that is not followed to in any meaningful way.

The nature of the game
The explanation by Chase spotlights some of the difficulties in economic development. The negotiations are not complete, but government approval is needed. More broadly, economic development officials are not negotiating the use of their own capital or capital that has been entrusted to them. They’re spending someone else’s money, for which there is little incentive to bargain wisely.

Commissioners were told that Figeac is a successful company. Why, then, does it need incentives?

Economic development in Wichita: Looking beyond the immediate

Decisions on economic development initiatives in Wichita are made based on “stage one” thinking, failing to look beyond what is immediate and obvious. From December 2014.

Critics of the economic development policies in use by the City of Wichita are often portrayed as not being able to see and appreciate the good things these policies are producing, even though they are unfolding right before our very eyes. The difference is that some look beyond the immediate — what is seen — and ask “And then what will happen?” — looking for the unseen.

Thomas Sowell explains the problem in a passage from the first chapter of Applied economics: thinking beyond stage one:

When we are talking about applied economic policies, we are no longer talking about pure economic principles, but about the interactions of politics and economics. The principles of economics remain the same, but the likelihood of those principles being applied unchanged is considerably reduced, because politics has its own principles and imperatives. It is not just that politicians’ top priority is getting elected and re-elected, or that their time horizon seldom extends beyond the next election. The general public as well behaves differently when making political decisions rather than economic decisions. Virtually no one puts as much time and close attention into deciding whether to vote for one candidate rather than another as is usually put into deciding whether to buy one house rather than another — or perhaps even one car rather than another.

The voter’s political decisions involve having a minute influence on policies which affect many other people, while economic decision-making is about having a major effect on one’s own personal well-being. It should not be surprising that the quantity and quality of thinking going into these very different kinds of decisions differ correspondingly. One of the ways in which these decisions differ is in not thinking through political decisions beyond the immediate consequences. When most voters do not think beyond stage one, many elected officials have no incentive to weigh what the consequences will be in later stages — and considerable incentives to avoid getting beyond what their constituents think and understand, for fear that rival politicians can drive a wedge between them and their constituents by catering to public misconceptions.

The economic decisions made by governing bodies like the Wichita City Council have a large impact on the lives of Wichitans. But as Sowell explains, these decisions are made by politicians for political reasons.

Sowell goes on to explain the danger of stopping the thinking process at stage one:

When I was an undergraduate studying economics under Professor Arthur Smithies of Harvard, he asked me in class one day what policy I favored on a particular issue of the times. Since I had strong feelings on that issue, I proceeded to answer him with enthusiasm, explaining what beneficial consequences I expected from the policy I advocated.

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. However, as I thought about it, it became clear that the situation I described would lead to other economic consequences, which I then began to consider and to spell out.

“And what will happen after that?” Professor Smithies asked.

As I analyzed how the further economic reactions to the policy would unfold, I began to realize that these reactions would lead to consequences much less desirable than those at the first stage, and I began to waver somewhat.

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

By now I was beginning to see that the economic reverberations of the policy I advocated were likely to be pretty disastrous — and, in fact, much worse than the initial situation that it was designed to improve.

Simple as this little exercise may sound, it goes further than most economic discussions about policies on a wide range of issues. Most thinking stops at stage one.

We see stage one thinking all the time when looking at government. In Wichita, for example, a favorite question of city council members seeking to justify their support for government intervention such as a tax increment financing (TIF) district or some other form of subsidy is “How much more tax does the building pay now?” Or perhaps “How many jobs will (or did) the project create?”

These questions, and the answers to them, are examples of stage one thinking. The answers are easily obtained and cited as evidence of the success of the government program.

But driving by a store or hotel in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Using the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is stage one thinking, and nothing more than that.

Fortunately, there are people who have thought beyond stage one, and some concerning local economic development and TIF districts. And what they’ve found should spur politicians and bureaucrats to find ways to move beyond stage one in their thinking.

An example are economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman, who have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development states in its conclusion:

TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.

So TIF districts are good for the favored development that receives the subsidy — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:

If the use of tax increment financing stimulates economic development, there should be a positive relationship between TIF adoption and overall growth in municipalities. This did not occur. If, on the other hand, TIF merely moves capital around within a municipality, there should be no relationship between TIF adoption and growth. What we find, however, is a negative relationship. Municipalities that use TIF do worse.

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.

In a different paper (The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development), the same economists wrote “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not. … 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.”

Here we have an example of thinking beyond stage one. The results are opposite of what one-stage thinking produces.

Some city council members are concerned about creating jobs, and are swayed by the promises of developers that their establishments will employ a certain number of workers. Again, this thinking stops at stage one. But others have looked farther, as has Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. The title of his recent report is Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth, and in its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs:

Increasingly, municipal leaders justify their use of tax increment financing (TIF) by touting its role in improving municipal employment. However, empirical studies on TIF have primarily examined TIF’s impact on property values, ignoring the claim that serves as the primary justification for its use. This article addresses the claim by examining the impact of TIF adoption on municipal employment growth in Illinois, looking for both general impact and impact specific to the type of development supported. 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. These results are consistent with industrial TIF districts capturing employment that would have otherwise occurred outside of the adopting municipality and retail TIF districts shifting employment within the municipality to more labor-efficient retailers within the TIF district.

While this research might be used to support a TIF district for industrial development, TIF in Wichita is primarily used for retail development. And, when thinking beyond stage one, the effect on employment — considering the entire city — is negative.

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. But over and over 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.

In Wichita, running government like a business

In Wichita and Sedgwick County, can we run government like a business? Should we even try? Do our leaders think there is a difference? From December 2014.

Sedgwick County Working for YouAs Wichita considers the future of its economy, a larger role for government is contemplated. The views of the people leading the effort to expand government management of the local economy are important to explore. Consider Gary Schmitt, who is an executive at Intrust Bank. Following is an excerpt from the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners. The topic was a forgivable loan to Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. These loans are equivalent to a cash grant, as long as conditions are met. At the time of this meeting Schmitt was vice chair of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

This discourse shows the value of elected officials like Karl Peterjohn, and also Richard Ranzau, as he too contributed to the understanding of this matter. When Michael O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council, he also contributed in this way.

Here’s what Schmitt told the commissioners, based on the meeting minutes: “I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future.”

Shortly after that he said “Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing.”

Wichita leaders need to understand businessThe problem is that when the bank Schmitt works for makes a loan, there are several forces in play that are not present in government. Perhaps the most obvious is that a bank loans money and expects to be repaid. In the case of the forgivable loan the commission was considering, the goal is that the loan is not repaid. These loans, remember, are a grant of cash, subject to a few conditions. If the recipient company is required to repay the loan, it is because it did not meet conditions such as job count or capital investment. In these circumstances, the company is probably not performing well economically, and therefore may not be able to repay the loan.

Another example of how a bank is different from government is that at a bank, both parties enter the loan transaction voluntarily. The bank’s shareholders and depositors are voluntary participants. Perhaps not explicitly for each loan, but if I do not like the policies or loans my bank has made, I can easily move my shares and deposits to another bank. But for these government loans, I personally have appeared several times before governmental bodies asking that the loan not be made. I did not consent. And changing government is much more difficult than changing banks.

Another difference between Schmitt’s bank and government is that bank’s goal is to earn a profit. Government doesn’t calculate profit. It is not able to, and when it tries, it efforts fall short. For one thing, government conscripts its capital. It faces no market test as to whether it is making good investments. It doesn’t have to compete with other institutions for capital, as a private bank does. Ludwig von Mises taught us that government can’t calculate profit and loss, the essential measure that lets us know if a business is making efficient use of resources. Thomas DiLorenzo elaborated, writing: “There is no such thing as real accounting in government, of course, since there are no profit-and-loss statements, only budgets. Consequently, there is no way of ever knowing, in an accounting sense, whether government is adding value or destroying it.”

An example of this lack of accounting for capital comes from the same governmental body making this forgivable loan. In Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense is important, even today, I explain that proper attention given to the depreciation expense of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita would recognize and account for the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to pay for the arena. But the county doesn’t do that, at least not in its most visible annual reporting of the arena’s financial results.

Governments locally do have a measure of what they consider to be “profit.” It’s the benefit-cost ratio calculated by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR) at Wichita State University. This is the source of the “$1 invested and get a return of over $2.40” that Schmitt referenced. But the “benefits” that go into this calculation are quite different from the profits that business firms attempt to earn. Most importantly, the benefits that government claims are not really benefits. Instead, they’re in the form of additional tax revenue paid to government. This is very different from the profits companies earn in voluntary market transactions.

Government usually claims that in order to get these “benefits,” the incentives must be paid. But often the new economic activity (expansion, etc.) would have happened anyway without the incentives. There is much evidence that economic development incentives rank low on the list of factors businesses consider when making investments. A related observation is that if the relatively small investment government makes in incentives is solely or even partially responsible for such wonderful outcomes in terms of jobs, why doesn’t government do this more often? If the Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners has such power to create economic growth, why is anyone unemployed?

Those, like Gary Schmitt, who are preparing to lead Wichita’s efforts in stimulating its economy believe that government should take on a larger role. We need to make sure that these leaders understand the fundamental differences between government and business, and how government can — and can’t — help business grow.

Following is an excerpt from the meeting minutes:

Chairman Skelton said, “Okay, thank you. Anybody else who wishes to speak today? Please state your name and address for the record.”

Mr. Gary Schmitt, (address redacted to respect privacy) greeted the Commissioners and said, “I work at Intrust Bank and I am the Vice-Chair of GWEDC. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank all of you also for just saving the county $700,000 by refinancing the bond issue. I think that was a great move. I think that’s exactly what we need to do to help support our county.

Mr. Schmitt said, “Also want to say I think Starwood coming to Wichita with 900 jobs in the very near future is a big win for Wichita, for Sedgwick County and our community. And I just want to encourage you to support the $200,000 investment. I know at the bank where I work, if we had a $1 invested and get a return of over $2.40, we would consider that a very good investment in the future. And I think having 900 people employed in basically starter jobs, or jobs to fill the gap in their financial needs for their families is very important also. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. I encourage you to support positive vote on this.”

Chairman Skelton said, “Commissioner Peterjohn.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Mr. Schmidt, I thank you for coming down and speaking today and your efforts on behalf of GWEDC. One of the things I struggle with these issues when they come before the Commission is what is the, how do we come up with an optimum number? I mean, why is $200,000 the right figure for the county’s contribution. And also, I mean, other than the fact that the city approved a similar amount yesterday, and when this comes to us and the calculations are coming from a, I think, a basic input and output model that fluctuates, depending on what assumptions you feed into it, I struggle with, you know, how do we determine, when you get a proposal at the bank, somebody comes in and says, hey, I would like to borrow x number of dollars for this project, we expect a net present value or rate of return of so much, and based on a loan cost of a certain interest rate, we get those very specific calculations. Can you provide any insight, in terms of why $200,000 is the optimal number for this forgivable loan over 5 years, and help me out on that point?”

Mr. Schmitt said, “I’ll try. GWEDC basically is a cooperation between businesses, business community leaders and also the city and the county government. We sort of have all the players at the table. And it’s very similar to what we do at the bank, when somebody comes in and asks for a proposal, we have to understand what our capacity is, what our expectations are, and we analyze all that. By using WSU calculate return on investment, that’s similar to what we do at the bank to calculate our return on investment. Now, I’m sure Starwood would be very excited if we said we will give you $2 million instead of $200,000, but we negotiated a number that we thought was acceptable to Starwood and also us.

“Very similar what we do at the bank when we negotiate loan amounts or rates. So it is very much a business decision to try to figure out how to bring 900 jobs to our community without overspending or over committing. So, Mr. Peterjohn, I think we’ve tried to do everything we can to bring the best deal to the community we possibly can.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Well then help me out, in terms of the point that was raised over, we’ve got a forgivable loan for five years, but the calculation, in terms of return and so on are over 10 years. So basically our clawback provisions don’t exist from year 6 through 10.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “Well…”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “And then you’ve got that disparity.”

Mr. Schmitt said, “You know, the other interesting thing is they have a 15 year lease out there on the building. So our expectation is they will be a minimum of 15 years. So do we do it on 5, 10, or 15 years. So, I understand your question. I don’t know the answer to that.”

Commissioner Peterjohn said, “Okay. Thank you for coming down and providing…” Mr. Schmitt said, “You are welcome. Thank you.”

Kansas school reform

A Wichita economist and attorney offers advice to a committee of the Kansas Legislature on reforming Kansas schools for student achievement. From December 2015.

This week saw the third meeting of the 2015 Special Committee on K-12 Student Success for the Kansas Legislature. Of special interest was the short testimony of Robert Litan, a Wichita economist and attorney. His testimony summarized some of the important problems with Kansas public schools and points to ways that Kansas can move forward in providing education to schoolchildren. His written testimony may be viewed here.

In arguing for starting with a “clean sheet” instead of merely tweaking the current formula, Litan wrote: “The reason is quite simple. Despite continued increases in real spending per pupil in the state, educational outcomes in Kansas are not improving nor are the gaps between the performance of students from low-income families and all other students.”

He also touches on several ways that Kansas schools could improve efficiency in their operations without consolidating school districts. The savings could be several hundred million dollars per year, a significant sum in Kansas.

Kansas needs to improve the performance of schools, focusing particularly on closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and others, said Litan. A possible problem, he writes, is that the additional money allocated for “at-risk” students may not be spent in ways specifically targeted to those students. A problem is lack of tracking systems to see how this money is spent. (The at-risk weighting is substantial. For its first few years, starting in 1992, the weighting added five percent to state funding for each student classified as “at-risk.” It rose over the years, reaching 45.6 percent in 2008.)

Litan also touches on the importance of having good teachers and the controversies surrounding how to evaluate teachers. But it is important to reward good teachers, he writes.

Cost savings might also be used to reward school districts that provide more student attendance time: “Other things being equal, more schooling time should enhance student performance.” Of note, this year’s agreement with the teachers union for the Wichita school district reduces the school year by two days.

Finally, the importance of school choice, which is nearly non-existent in Kansas. A new funding formula needs to allow for school choice:

Finally, there are limits to how much any change in the way funding for schools is allocated among districts can affect student performance. That is because today parents’ and students’ ability to choose their public education provider is very limited, or non-existent.

That is not true in some other states, where parents and their children have more choices, as they do in other spheres of life for other goods and services. While broader choice is not directly on the table of today’s hearing, hopefully any changes this Committee and the Legislature may make in funding will not penalize any new schools that may be formed in the wake of any possible future change in Kansas law governing charter schools.

Pragmatism must recognize reality

Any editorial that starts with “Karl Marx was right about at least one thing …” deserves close examination, especially when it appears in Kansas’ largest newspaper and is written by that newspaper’s former editor. The thrust of Davis Merritt’s article is that the theory of free markets hasn’t worked: “We’re painfully experiencing right now the unraveling of neat free-market theory.” (“Pragmatism needs to trump ideology,” November 18, 2008 Wichita Eagle.)

Here’s the first problem with Mr. Merritt’s argument: what we live in is anything but a free market society. George Reisman details just how far removed we are from anything resembling free markets in The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Present Crisis.

Then, Mr. Merritt warns that free market theory is doomed to fail because “perfect theories require perfect people.” I don’t know precisely who he refers to as not perfect, but judging from the tone of the article, I think he’s condemning greedy businesspeople who are the cause of the present financial crisis. In particular, investment bankers. Demonizing these people on general grounds doesn’t help. Instead: Did they steal from their shareholders? Did they commit fraud when they issued sub-prime loans? These acts are illegal, and to the extent they were committed, let’s prosecute them.

Greed — human self-interest — is a constant factor. It’s what drives people to expend tremendous effort to accomplish great things for the betterment of mankind. It can also drive people to accept a sub-prime mortgage loan that they can’t repay in order to buy a house they can’t afford — but, greedily, want nonetheless. It works both ways. So we need good rules that prevent people from using theft, force, and fraud to unjustly enrich themselves. These good rules are easier to create and enforce, and more reliable, than a false hope the people will start behaving “good.”

Besides, couldn’t we also say that good government requires good politicians, bureaucrats, and administrators? I’m surprised that an editor of a newspaper — someone who must have experienced the political process close-up — would have such confidence in government instead of people.

Mr. Merritt cites the “hands-off, no-regulation attitude of the current administration” as bad for people and economic welfare. If we had been experiencing a period of reductions in regulation, we might have evidence for this claim. The Heritage Foundation report Red Tape Rising: Regulatory Trends in the Bush Years debunks the myth that regulation has decreased during the presidency of George W. Bush: “Far from shrinking to dangerously low levels, regulation has actually grown substantially during the Bush years. By almost every measure, regulatory burdens are up.”

Mr. Merritt’s editorial, if its advice is taken, will lead us towards more regulation and reliance on government. That’s not what we need.

PRAGMATISM NEEDS TO TRUMP IDEOLOGY
Wichita Eagle, The (KS) – November 18, 2008
Edition: opinSection: OPINIONPage: 7AColumn: Davis MerrittReadability: 11-12 grade level (Lexile: 1220)
Karl Marx was right about at least one thing: Capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction.

But, of course, so does capitalism’s polar opposite, communism.

And, for that matter, so does any other pure economic or social ideology, as all of modern history demonstrates.

That’s because all pure ideologies — that is, tightly wound theories of how the world could or ought to work — by their nature do not allow for the vagaries of human impulse, including greed and self-indulgence.

We’re painfully experiencing right now the unraveling of neat free-market theory. Financial markets free of outside (read: government) interference might indeed be the best engine of wealth and social good, provided they did not depend upon people to execute them. But, of course, they do. Perfect theories require perfect people, and unlike horseshoes, close doesn’t count when it comes to human perfection.

So let’s get on, wisely and cautiously, with the business of figuring out how to balance what’s good for the majority of people and what works in the real economy and not a theoretical one.

Clearly the hands-off, no-regulation attitude of the current administration was not best for either the majority of people or the nation’s economic welfare. It was very, very good indeed for the people whom the administration and free-market theory deliberately left alone, at least in the sense that they became ultrarich. That would have been tolerable if, in the process, they had at some level improved the lot of their shareholders and the general economy.

But it didn’t work that way. Instead, the barons of investment banking took very good care of themselves and their key employees with scant regard for the bulk of their investors or the rest of the country. They have left millions of shareholders poorer and millions of homeowners in peril, thus destroying the confidence of people in the system and inviting a backlash of overregulation.

So it was hopeful to hear President-elect Barack Obama in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night set a primary goal to “restore a sense of trust, transparency, openness in our financial system.”

And the way to do that, he said, is “not heavy-handed regulations” but “to restore a sense of balance.”

The free-market principle is one that “we’ve gotta hold to,” but “what I don’t want to do is get bottled up in a lot of ideology and (whether an approach) is conservative or liberal. My interest is finding something that works. And whether it’s coming from FDR or it’s coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times then we’re gonna apply it. And things that don’t work, we’re gonna get rid of.”

Obama claimed that a consensus exists among liberal and conservative economists that “we have to do whatever it takes to get this economy moving again,” and whatever that is may not fit neatly into any ideological framework.

It’s clearly the time for pragmatism and the time to avoid quarrels about labels. We cannot ignore the reality of narrow human impulses, but we can insist that they operate in the broad public interest.

Davis Merritt is a former editor of The Eagle. Reach him at dmerritt [email protected]

Wichita’s economic development strategy: rent seeking

Since this article was written in December 2009, the term “rent seeking” has given way to something more understandable: “cronyism.” It’s still dominant in Wichita, and our economic growth still lags.

As Wichita embarks on our planning for the revitalization of downtown Wichita — or as we look back at actions the Wichita city council takes almost every week — we ought to take a look to see if these actions produce an increase in wealth for our community.

It is wealth, after all, that defines prosperity. Our goal ought to be to create an environment where everyone lives in an environment conducive to creating prosperity and wealth. But in a misguided effort, our city leaders, week after week, take actions that produce just the opposite.

The revitalization of downtown Wichita is likely to further harm the economic environment in Wichita. That’s because counterproductive measures such as tax increment financing districts and a sales tax are likely to be necessary to implement the plan.

What’s wrong with these actions? Simple: They’re rent seeking activities. They don’t produce wealth.

The term rent, or more precisely, economic rent is somewhat unfortunate, as the common usage of the term — paying someone money for the use of an asset for a period of time — contains no sinister connotation. But economic rent does carry baggage.

So what is rent seeking? Wikipedia defines it like this: “In economics, rent seeking occurs when an individual, organization or firm seeks to earn income by capturing economic rent through manipulation or exploitation of the economic environment, rather than by earning profits through economic transactions and the production of added wealth.”

This explanation doesn’t do full justice to the term, because it doesn’t mention the role that government and politics usually play. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics adds this: “The idea is simple but powerful. People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena. They typically do so by getting a subsidy for a good they produce or for being in a particular class of people, by getting a tariff on a good they produce, or by getting a special regulation that hampers their competitors.”

It’s thought that Wichita needs to dish out economic development subsidies so that we can attract new companies to our town, or, as is often the case, retain existing companies. So we grant special tax treatment — usually through industrial revenue bonds, but also in other ways — to these companies. Or sometimes we may dispense with the cumbersome IRB process and simply give companies money, or make loans that don’t need to be repaid.

These benefits — representing economic rent and rent seeking behavior — are great for the lucky companies that received them. But what about considering the city or region as a whole? In that case, something different emerges. Here’s an excerpt from “Rent Seeking and Economic Growth: Evidence From the States,” Harold J. Brumm, Cato Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999):

The present study finds the growth rate of real gross state product (GSP) per capita to be negatively correlated with the initial level of real GSP per capita, the burden of state tax structure, and — most notably — the level of rent-seeking activity in the state. On the basis of the estimates obtained for the standardized coefficients of the explanatory variables in the growth rate equation, the conclusion reached here is that rent-seeking activity has a relatively large negative effect on the rate of state economic growth. An implication of this finding is that a state government which promulgates policies that foster sustained artificial rent seeking does so at considerable expense to its economic growth.

In simple terms, rent seeking activity harms economic growth.

This study also states: “The private returns of rent seekers come from the redistribution of wealth, not from wealth creation. The tax that rent seeking imposes on the productive sector reduces the output growth rate by reducing the incentives of entrepreneurs to produce and innovate.”

This study looked at state governments and their activities, but there’s reason to suspect that the findings apply to cities and counties, too.

So should we simply give up and not grant preferential tax treatment and other subsidies to companies to induce them to locate in Wichita? No. Instead, as I’ve outlined in Wichita universal tax exemption could propel growth, we should offer preferential tax treatment to all new investment in Wichita.

A broad policy like this, where everyone benefits, eliminates the harmful effects of rent seeking. All companies can benefit, not only those that fit into certain categories or make special pleadings to politicians or bureaucrats. All companies can plan with certainty on receiving the benefit — there won’t be the risk whether the city council and bureaucrats will approve the benefit.

This is the type of policy we should follow to increase economic growth in Wichita.

At Wichita planning commission, downtown plan approved

Wichita city leaders want us to believe that decisions are made on “hard” data, that is, reliable and objective data. Here’s an example of exposing the nature of some of the data the city relies upon. A city official agreed that the data was probably “flawed,” that is, inaccurate and/or unreliable. But the city proceeds nonetheless. From November 2010. I apologize that the links to the City of Wichita’s website have moved or disappeared.

At last week’s meeting of the Wichita Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, members were asked to approve the Goody Clancy plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. I appeared to make sure that commissioners were aware of some of the highly dubious data on which the plan is based.

In particular, I presented to the commission the Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, and how Goody Clancy relied on this obviously meaningless data in developing plans for downtown Wichita.

Walk Score is purported to represent a measure of walkability of a location in a city. Walkability is a key design element of the mster plan Goody Clancy has developed for downtown Wichita. In January, David Dixon, who leads Goody Clancy’s Planning and Urban Design division, used Walk Score in a presentation delivered in Wichita.

Walk Score is not a project of Goody Clancy, as far as I know, and David Dixon is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the Walk Score website. But he presented it and relied on it as an example of the data-driven approach that Goody Clancy takes.

Walk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody ClancyWalk Score data for downtown Wichita, as presented by planning firm Goody Clancy. Click for a larger view.

The score for 525 E. Douglas, the block the Eaton Hotel is in and mentioned by Dixon as a walkable area, scored 91, which means it is a “walker’s paradise,” according to the Walk Score website.

But here’s where we can start to see just how bad the data used to develop these scores is. For a grocery store — an important component of walkability — the website indicates indicates a grocery store just 0.19 miles away. It’s “Pepsi Bottling Group,” located on Broadway between Douglas and First Streets. Those familiar with the area know there is no grocery store there, only office buildings. The claim of a grocery store here is false.

There were other claimed amenities where the data is just as bad. But as Larry Weber, chairman of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation told me a while back, Walk Score has been updated. I should no longer be concerned with the credibility of this data, he told me through a comment left on this website.

He’s correct. Walk Score has been updated, but we should still be concerned about the quality of the data. Now for the same location the walk score is 85, which is considered “very walkable.” The “grocery store” is no longer the Pepsi Bottling Group. It’s now “Market Place,” whose address is given as 155 N. Market St # 220.

If Mr. Weber would ever happen to stroll by that location, he’d find that address, 155 N. Market number 220, is the management office for an office building whose name is Market Place.

It’s not a grocery store. It’s nothing resembling a grocery store. Now I’m even more concerned about the credibility of this data and the fact that Goody Clancy relied on it. I’m further concerned that Weber thinks this is an improvement, and that he feels I should not be concerned.

As I reminded the commission members, David Dixon and other Goody Clancy staff did not create the Walk Score data. But they presented it to Wichitans as an example of the data-driven, market-oriented approach to planning that they use. Dixon cited Walk Score data as the basis for higher real estate values based on the walkability of the area and its surrounding amenities.

But anyone who relies on the evidence Dixon and Goody Clancy presented would surely get burnt unless they investigated the area on their own.

And since this January reliance on Walk Score was made after Goody Clancy had spent considerable time in Wichita, the fact that someone there could not immediately recognize how utterly bogus the data is — that should give us cause for concern that the entire planning process is based on similar shoddy data and analysis.

A member of the planning commission asked that Scott Knebel, a member of the city’s planning staff who is the city’s point man on downtown planning, address the concerns raised by me.

Knebel said “In terms of the Walk Score, I suspect Mr. Weeks is absolutely right, it probably is a relatively flawed measurement of Walk Score.” He added that the measurement is probably flawed everywhere, downtown and elsewhere. He said that Goody Clancy used it “as an illustration of the importance of walkability in an urban area.” He added, correctly, that Goody Clancy tied it to premiums in real estate values in areas that are mixed use and walkable.

In the end, all commission members voted in favor of accepting the plan. The Wichita City Council is scheduled to hear this matter on December 14th.

Wichita downtown plan focused on elite values, incorrect assumptions

From November 2010. Since then, I think it’s become clear the process is driven by the elites, rather than the people.

One of the themes of those planning the future of downtown Wichita is that the suburban areas of Wichita are bad. The people living there are not cultured and sophisticated, the planners say. Suburbanites live wasteful lifestyles. Planners say they use too much energy, emit too much carbon, and gobble up too much land, all for things they’ve been duped into believing they want.

It’s an elitist diagnosis, and Wichita’s buying it. Well, we’ve already paid for it, but we can stop the harmful planning process before it’s too late.

Consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation in January, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

These attitudes reflect those of most of the planning profession — that people can’t be relied on to choose what’s best for them. Instead they believe that only they — like the planners at Goody Clancy — are equipped to make choices for people. It’s an elitism that Wichita ought to reject.

Besides this, many of the assumptions that planners rely on are wrong, like the purported demographic shifts planners rely on. Consider the recent article Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, Not Dense Cities, are the Future by journalist and geographer Joel Kotkin. While Kotkin’s article focuses a lot on mega-cities like Mumbai and Mexico City, there’s a lot to be learned by smaller cities like Wichita.

One of the issues Kotkin addresses is the effort of cities to appeal to the “creative class.” This is a hot issue in Wichita, where it is thought that we can’t attract young urbanites and their energy and upward economic mobility. Therefore, we must invest in arts, culture, and “hipness.” Kotkin responds:

The hipper the city, the mantra goes, the richer and more successful it will be — and a number of declining American industrial hubs have tried to rebrand themselves as “creative class” hot spots accordingly. But this argument, or at least many applications of it, gets things backward. Arts and culture generally do not fuel economic growth by themselves; rather, economic growth tends to create the preconditions for their development. … Sadly, cities desperate to reverse their slides have been quick to buy into the simplistic idea that by merely branding themselves “creative” they can renew their dying economies; think of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Michigan’s bid to market Detroit as a “cool city.” … Culture, media, and other “creative” industries, important as they are for a city’s continued prosperity, simply do not spark an economy on their own. It turns out to be the comparatively boring, old-fashioned industries, such as trade in goods, manufacturing, energy, and agriculture, that drive the world’s fastest-rising cities.”

The things the Wichita plan is designed to foster: increased density, increased real estate values, decreased use of the automobile, and prescription by cultural elites of what may be built in which locations — these things drive away many people, Kotkin says: “Nor is the much-vaunted ‘urban core’ the only game in town. Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center.”

The sprawl and the alleged unsustainable lifestyle of the suburbs that elites like the Goody Clancy planners clearly disdain — here’s what Kotkin says: “Consider the environment. We tend to associate suburbia with carbon dioxide-producing sprawl and urban areas with sustainability and green living. But though it’s true that urban residents use less gas to get to work than their suburban or rural counterparts, when it comes to overall energy use the picture gets more complicated.” He cites examples in the article.

But the planning process might not be all bad, Kotkin concedes, noting that “To their credit, talented new urbanists have had moderate success in turning smaller cities like Chattanooga and Hamburg into marginally more pleasant places to live.” Chattanooga is one place that Wichita planners and their acolytes have visited recently.

Kansas PEAK program: corporate welfare wrapped in obfuscation

From November 2011, a look at issues surrounding the Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program. Unfortunately, the project that is the focus of this article was canceled, and the projected jobs did not materialize. For more on this topic, see

Whether one agrees with the effectiveness and wisdom of government involvement in local economic development, there’s one thing that’s certain: facts and understanding are in short supply.

An illustration of how confusing things can get was provided last Wednesday at a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission. Aviation manufacturer Bombardier LearJet was seeking a small part of a larger incentive package from the county. The county was being asked to contribute $1 million, but the overall package Bombardier is seeking is worth $52.7 million. That’s the entire cost of the Wichita portion of the project.

A large part of the package Bombardier is seeking is based on the Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program. Administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce, the program allows qualifying companies to retain 95 percent of the state income withholding taxes their employees pay.

It’s a roundabout method of distributing corporate welfare that allows companies — and gullible or self-serving politicians — to pretend as though this program has no cost, or that companies are in fact investing their own money.

In the present case, Bombardier LearJet plans to obtain $27.0 million through this program. It’s described in a company presentation as “Initial State of Kansas Bond Issuance.” They call it that because the State of Kansas will issue bonds that LearJet will buy. That makes it seem that Bombardier LearJet is actually contributing something of their own.

This misconception might be reinforced in a dialog between John Dieker, vice president of strategic projects for Bombardier Learjet, and Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton. Skelton was perhaps trying to counter my testimony earlier in the meeting. I had wondered if Bombardier LearJet was contributing even one dollar of their own funds to the project.

Skelton asked Dieker “Where is this money coming from?”

Dieker replied “We have the incentives we got from the state at $27 million. We have the interest that throws off since corporate bought the bonds, that’s corporate money that’s going back into the project, so that’s $6 million.

Skelton asked “So the corporation did buy the bonds?”

The answer was “Yes, corporation bought the bonds.”

Skelton concluded: “Well that’s your … I would consider that your money, sir.”

Dieker didn’t dispute Skelton’s conclusion. He should have.

Here’s how this financing works, in this case: The state issues $27 million in bonds and sells them to Bombardier Learjet. At this moment, LearJet holds bonds (both an asset and a liability) worth $27 million. The state’s balance sheet hasn’t changed.

Going forward is where Bombardier LearJet benefits. In the normal course of affairs, the bonds would be repaid out of the company’s cash flow. But under the PEAK program, the bonds are repaid by its employees, through the tax withheld on their paychecks.

The benefit to LearJet is that it has to pay these taxes, but it manages to be the exclusive beneficiary. Normally these taxes go to fund the operations of Kansas state government. But under the PEAK program, these tax payments go right back to Learjet and are used to pay off the liability of the bonds. The tax payments never benefit the state, as do tax payments from almost all other companies in Kansas. (Bombardier is not the only company benefiting from PEAK.)

Bombardier is even counting the interest on these bonds as part of their capital contribution to the project. The interest, however, is also being paid by employee withholding taxes, at no cost to the company.

So did Bombardier LearJet contribute $27 million of its own money, as Skelton claims? When the entire economic transaction is considered, the answer is absolutely not.

If you’re not convinced by this argument, simply ask: why would Bombardier LearJet engage in such a transaction if it didn’t benefit them?

Schemes like this call into question one of the the fundamental principles of taxation: that the proceeds be used to fund the operations of government, not to enrich one particular person or company. But continually, chasing economic development dreams, states and local government concoct schemes like PEAK — and others like tax increment financing (TIF) districts, Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), rebates of hotel guest taxes, revenue bonds of various forms, and other monstrosities — that turn over a public function to benefit private interests.

Kansas can improve its budget process

From November 2012. So far, the state has not followed this advice.

This year Kansas made a leap forward in reducing income tax rates. The next step for Kansas is to reduce its spending, both to match the reduced revenue that is forecast, but also to improve the efficiency of Kansas government and leave more money in the hands of the private sector. Specifically, Kansas needs to improve its budgeting process and streamline state government.

In Kansas, like in many states, the budgeting process starts with the previous year’s spending. That is then adjusted for factors like inflation, caseloads, and policy changes that necessitate more (or rarely, less) spending. The result is that debates are waged over the increment in spending. Rarely is the base looked at to see if the spending is efficient, effective, or needed.

There are several approaches Kansas could take to improve this process. One is zero-based budgeting. In this approach, an agency’s budget set to zero. Then, every spending proposal must have a rational or justification for it to be added to the budget.

Zero-based budgeting can be successful, but, according to the recent paper Zero-base Budgeting in the States from National Conference of State Legislatures, it requires a large commitment from the parties involved. It also can take a lot of time and resources. Kansas could start the process with just a few agencies, and each agency could go through the process periodically, say once every five or six years. Some states have abandoned the zero-based budgeting process.

In its State Budget Reform Toolkit, American Legislative Exchange Council advocates a system called priority-based budgeting. This process starts with deciding on the core functions of state government. That, of course, can be a battle, as people have different ideas on what government should be doing.

ALEC reports that “In 2003, Washington state actually implemented priority based budgeting to close a budget deficit of $2.4 billion without raising taxes.”

The problem that Kansas will face in reducing state spending and streamlining its government is that there are those who are opposed. Streamlining often means eliminating programs that aren’t needed, aren’t performing as expected, or are very costly. These programs, however, all have constituencies that benefit from them — the concept of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs that public choice economics has taught us. These constituencies will be sure to let everyone know how harmful it will be to their self-interest if a program is scaled back or ended.

Streamlining also means that there may be fewer state employees. Some will say that the loss of state employees means a loss for the economy, as the state workers will no longer be receiving a paycheck and spending it. This reasoning, however, ignores the source of state workers’ pay: the taxpayers of Kansas. With fewer state employees, taxpayers will have more money to spend or invest. The problem is that it is easier to focus on the employees that may lose their jobs, as they are highly visible and they have vocal advocacy groups to watch out for them. This is an example of the seen and unseen, as explained by Henry Hazlitt.