Thursday, March 6, 2014

Can't Stop The Gods From Engineering

Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The momentum won't end. At least that is the story now that Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett has won re-election. His main opponent, City Councilman Ed Shadid, was apparently threatening to thwart that progress. And he continues to I guess by leading an initiative drive to bring back up for a vote both the >$250,000,000 new OKC convention center and the nearly permanent 1% sales tax associated with the city's long-term MAPS projects.

I'm not here to tout Shadid. The point I wish to make is a larger one. The winner of the mayor's race, Cornett, is seen and self proclaimed as the torchbearer for what I call the Coalition to Spend Other People's Money on Bright and Shiny Things. Shadid is one of the more high-profile challengers to this the received wisdom. But let's put the politicians aside and discuss the issue at hand. That issue is simply one of two questions:

  1. Should we force people through taxes to pay for things they don't seem to want?
  2. Why do we have to use taxes and government spending to express the people's desire?

I believe the first question is the correct framework of the issue. The supporters of MAPS have to believe the second is. I am presuming the people don't want these things because if they did, their wanting them would be sufficient to cause someone in the market to provide them without government involvement. Conversely, the supporters presume that the people* do want these things, but are unable to express that desire through the market. Let's assume the issue is framed properly by the second question, which means the challenge to the supporters is "show me the market failure!" Which really amounts to "show me the externality!"

Here is why. We've got lots and lots and lots of evidence that the market generally works at delivering the goods (the goods people want). That puts the burden of proof firmly on those who wish to make the case for the second question. Why is the market not able to connect demand and supply in this case? Ultimately that gets to what economists call externalities--positive externalities in this case. For some reason it must be that the benefits that would come from these projects cannot be sufficiently realized by those who would be the suppliers of these projects in the free market. But is a convention center really like clean air? There are lots of private suppliers of convention centers. What makes the OKC market so unique that convention centers become a public good?

Looking back to the funding into what is today Chesapeake Arena where the OKC Thunder play, why would private investors not be rewarded enough to build and improve such a facility? A self-serving, non-peer reviewed economic impact analysis is not relevant to this question. I understand how bright and shiny bright and shiny things are. This is a question of a cost/benefit analysis--both parts of which are critical to making a good investment decision. If only someone impartial studied these things . . .

Good public policy is shaped by setting aside what emotionally feels good for what critically is in the best interest of the public. Figuring that out is hard, but it is especially hard if you never look. See beyond the seen. Until the coalition can answer the second question effectively, I have to presume that the first question is the one to ask--the answer to which seems obvious.


*There is a BIG underlying assumption here that what is in the general (majority) interest of the public is expressed through the voting process and that that interest is a desirable end to impose on all of the people. It is not hard to poke holes in this assumption. If thirty people are trying to decide on what movie to go see where they all have to see the same movie, having fifteen of them vote on the movie will leave some of the voters dissatisfied and likely will leave some of the non voters dissatisfied too.

PS. Note that I am only discussing the economic efficiency facet of this debate wholly ignoring the important ethical argument about if it is right to tax some people (largely lower income/lower wealth people who have a harder time escaping the sales tax) for the benefit of some people.