Friday, April 19, 2013

When it comes to justifying economic development initiatives and incentives, public officials and those seeking favorable treatment from state and local government generally find it easy. And the most common drumbeat is “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” But I’ve noticed a trend where it seems the economic profession’s criticisms are affecting a positive change. Alas, I believe the change is chimerical.

We now hear the champions of economic development talking the talk that “not all economic development is created equal” and “there are some developments that are just not worth the price”. But I think this is a sales pitch to quiet the dissent without actually making a change. The mantra is still JOBS!, but now we hear of “primary” or more desirable jobs versus “secondary” or less desirable jobs. The definition of these two alleged distinct types of jobs shows some fundamental misunderstandings of economic analysis.

Here is the idea. Suppose you are an economic planner representing a regionally large, nationally small but important city. Oklahoma City is a good example. Two prospective firms are each considering a new location in one of a few cities, and Oklahoma City has made the short list for both firms. You know what each wants, say it is a ten-year tax break that amounts to $5,000,000, but the problem is because your city operates under strict balanced budget accounting, you are only authorized to give up to $5,000,000 in tax incentives away. That amount may go up or down in a year, but for now that is all you can agree to. Both firms want it, and you know with high certainty that either firm will take it and choose your city but without it the firms will go elsewhere. You want the jobs (because, after all, it is JOBS!); so you must decide to which firm to extend the incentive.

  • Firm A is a call center that will have 100 employees who will take calls from around the world to solve computer technology problems for a fee.
  • Firm B is a high-end automotive mechanic service employing 100 who will compete with local dealerships to offer high quality auto repair. The customers base is expected to be nearly 100% local.

The average wage and distribution of wages is the same between the two firms.

To the economic planner Firm A is offering “primary” jobs while Firm B is offering “secondary” jobs. Never mind the fact that jobs are not a good but a cost—there is a reason people aspire to retirement and Garfield hates Mondays. Firm A is “bringing in wealth” by exporting the service calls and importing the customers’ payment for service. Firm B is “moving around wealth” by selling auto repair for payment all within the locality. The preference is intuitive since in Firm A’s case revenue is flowing into the city rather than just revolving around the city as with Firm B. But the intuition here is a deeply flawed economic analysis. It stems from fundamentally misunderstanding the economics of exchange.

When a firm adds value to society, it does so by using less resources than it provides. The measure of this is profit. But profit in the case of both firms flows to the owners who may or may not reside in your community. Because you as economic developer are trying to grow quality jobs, you must consider which jobs are more desirable--remember, you only can give the incentive to one firm. Firm A gives up call center services exporting them outside of the community in exchange for money from outside the community which is partially used to pay the 100 employees' wages. Firm B gives up auto repair services for money all of which remains in the community. Firm B is retaining all of the benefit within the community while Firm A is sending away half of the benefit.

To make this clearer we should remove the monetary component, which serves to muddy the analysis. Ultimately, money is a proxy for what it can buy. At its essence exchange is still a bartering process; it's just that half of the barter is anything you want it to be (anything money can buy--so not love, Dr. McDreamy). Let's replace money with food. Perhaps now we can see it clearly: Firm A is sending computer services out of the community in exchange for food while Firm B is facilitating people within the community exchanging auto services for food. Both exchanges are mutually beneficial to the parties involved. But if you are going to prefer the local society over the society at large since you're the local economic developer, then you should prefer Firm B because that firm is retaining all the benefits (goods and services along with gains from trade) within the community.