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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.