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Monday, January 23, 2017
Mark Schoeff Jr.
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Michael Hicks: Cut the tax cut debate, spend money wisely
MUNCIE – Indiana’s business personal property tax remains a hot topic across much of the state. Tax abatements, TIF and an outright repeal are getting more of the attention they deserve. There is reason for optimism in this debate; however, the most critical issues are persistently ignored. In Fort Wayne, the city council will vote on a proposal to eliminate the business personal property tax. The proponents of this make two arguments. First, a lower tax will make the region more enticing to business investment. Second, that the city approves tax abatements and TIFs so often that new businesses receive huge windfalls while existing businesses bear higher taxes, or reduced services, because of the TIF or abatement. Both of these arguments have the benefit of being factually true; however, both entirely miss the real issues about tax policy and economic development. Let me explain.
Michael Hicks: Importers benefit from free trade
MUNCIE – Most Americans think incorrectly about the benefits of free trade. The general view is that it is good to export more than you import, and that the advantage is to the seller. This is how many in the “buy local” movement view the world, along with those folks still clinging to the “economic base theory” of local economic development. It is also precisely how George III viewed the world, but also he had the excuse of insanity. Trade is the selling of goods made in one place to people in another place. It should be obvious that a favorable balance of trade can hardly have anything to do with growth. After all, the world’s standard of living has grown some twenty fold since 1700, and there is scant evidence we run a balance of trade with Venus.
Michael Hicks: Indiana economy is not as good as it could be
MUNCIE – It is election season and the Op-Ed pages are filled with commentaries on the good and bad features of the Hoosier economy. As an economist, I have a somewhat different perspective. Today, the Hoosier economy is performing much better than it should be expected to. In nearly every metric Indiana outperforms the nation as a whole. Job growth is strong, incomes rise, the labor force expands, GDP and investment all grow briskly. Viewed through the short-term prism, Indiana’s growth is the envy of most of the nation. The credit for much of this unexpected prosperity lies both in significant policy changes of the last decade and serendipity. Quite simply, as the Great Recession began to ebb, Indiana had its fiscal and regulatory policy house in order. This meant the recovery was stronger, and broader than it should have been. Objectively viewed, growth in Indiana’s economy is much faster than expected. The problem is that we start so far behind. Indiana incomes continue to be much below the nation as a whole, and cost of living differences don’t get close to making up the difference.
Michael Hicks: A bad jobs report in every way
MUNCIE – The May 2016 jobs report was bad news in every meaningful way. Even ignoring the ongoing CWA strike, job creation was too low to absorb new workers. Nearly a half of a million folks quit looking for work and job losses plagued nearly every sector. A spike in involuntary part-time work erased months of full-time job gains and inflation-adjusted hourly wages declined. In total, this report was too bad to be merely a white noise error or data gathering anomaly. The reason why it was bad is another issue. Labor markets are lagging economic indicators, and so the only solace in these numbers is that they may be a hangover from the global slowdown that already appears to be stabilizing. Still, this challenges the Federal Reserve to reconsider the expected interest rate hikes later this month. It also begs the question of just how much policymakers can rely on macroeconomic models to explain the world. Macroeconomic forecasts perform fairly well in every domain except one; the timing and magnitude of a downturn. Given that there have been only a dozen U.S. recessions since the computer was invented, that’s not too surprising.
Michael Hicks: The big jobs lie of the 2016 campaign
MUNCIE – A primary election has just passed and Sen. Sanders and Mr. Trump both won comfortably with some version of a promise to “bring back jobs and manufacturing to America.” Voters clinging to this hope need to steel themselves for a letdown. Here’s why. No matter how you measure it, 2015 was the record year for manufacturing production in the USA. Right now manufacturing in Indiana and the USA is at record levels. There’s no ambiguity on this. I think inflation-adjusted dollars are the best measure, but in any available metric we are at record manufacturing production. We’re just doing it with far fewer workers. Indiana has lost a quarter million manufacturing jobs since our peak year of factory employment back in 1973. The USA has lost 7.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1977, the national peak for manufacturing employment. These are simple facts deviously hidden in every public library in the country and on the internet accessible by the 550 million smart phones and computers in use in America.
Michael Hicks: The future of Ivy Tech
MUNCIE – In the darkest days of the Great Recession, enrollment at Ivy Tech exploded, allowing perhaps one in three unemployed Hoosiers to pursue an education. The women and men who made that happen in the classroom and administrative offices deserve our thanks. But, in 2016, not all is well in what might be our most important college. Unfortunately, the Ivy Tech system responded to this huge rush of students with an overabundance of construction. Ivy Tech now has more than twice the physical space it could possibly need scattered on more than 110 sites around the state. What started as an ambitious effort to offer a wide course of study turned into an overpromise and underdelivery of services. Sadly, graduation rates are in the single digits, and worse still, the school has struggled to recruit and retain its most important contribution to success, its faculty. This column is not about casting blame. Nearly everyone in Indiana has a stake in Ivy Tech’s success and has shared their opinion. And this economist won’t speak ill of anyone who forecasted poorly through the Great Recession. Still, the time has come for Ivy Tech to embrace a new model.
Michael Hicks: Labor market outcomes and education
MUNCIE – Labor markets across the United States, including here in Indiana are edging ever closer to full employment, the happy condition in which there is at least one job opening for every person who wishes to be employed. That, of course, ain’t what you hear from presidential candidates, especially Mr. Trump, who claims the unemployment rate is maybe eight times higher. That claim is an astonishing fabrication, but fact checking Mr. Trump is like slicing Jello. It can be done, but why bother? So, today there are about 159.3 million folks in the labor force, about 63 percent of men and women aged 18 through 65. This is more Americans now working than ever before, with about 7.9 million unemployed. Advertised jobs run at more than 5.5 million and monthly job turnover in the last three months averaged about 9.0 percent of jobs, or roughly 1.44 million workers each month.
Michael Hicks: Free tuition a political gift to rich families
MUNCIE – It is early in the electoral cycle, but at least two U.S .presidential candidates have adopted as a policy platform, free college tuition. This is popular of course, but behind that popular rhetoric is simply another gift to affluent households. Let me explain. There’s no denying the sticker shock of a college education. As both a professor and father I know it is daunting. Tuition at an in-state, public research university is typically $8,000 a year. Fees, books, food and housing along with various other expenses will usually push the visible out-of-pocket expenses to more than $25,000 a year. But what does this really mean? For the past decade or so, actual expenses related to teaching have been fairly flat. The increases in tuition driven almost wholly by decreases by state aid to public universities. This decline in state aid should not surprise anyone. The share of educational benefits accrue to the graduate, they ought to pay most of the cost.
Michael Hicks: Worker problems fueled by tax incentives for capital
MUNCIE – Countless issues fuel the populist wave that animate this election cycle. Many of the concerns are easily refutable by facts, but there is one issue that is the main policy contribution to the lagging labor markets, the rising wealth inequality and the unease among so many workers. It is the very unequal way we treat workers and investors. Workers and investors contribute labor and capital to the economy, accounting for about 85 percent of the input share of GDP. Entrepreneurs pull them together to make a profit. Industries use labor, capital, and entrepreneurship in different proportions. Over time, technology change, cost and relative productivity cause businesses to change their mix of workers and capital.
Michael Hicks: Indiana population trends troubling
MUNCIE – The most recent county population estimates for Indiana tell a blunt tale about the state’s future. It is part of the story that I, and others, have been offering for some time. It bears repeating. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, a dozen Hoosier counties grew faster than the nation as a whole, while 30 lost population. The remainder grew, but at a slower pace than the nation overall. So, most of Indiana was in absolute or relative population decline. In last month’s population report, the number of shrinking counties rose to 54, and those growing faster than the nation as a whole rose to 14. That left 24 counties in relative decline. All the growth is happening in urban places, and all the decline is in rural or small town Indiana. It has been this way for half a century, but the pace is accelerating. This population redistribution matters deeply for Indiana’s health through the 21st century. Cities grow for simple reasons that cannot be duplicated in rural areas no matter how wishful the thinking.
Michael Hicks: Technology both compliments and replaces labor
MUNCIE – Technology has long displaced jobs and occupations, often with little warning. The good it brings is immense but often overlooked, while the much smaller costs are more concentrated. Though the net effect is overwhelmingly positive, the workers who are unable to adapt usually fair poorly. The adoption of machines and technology to the workplace displays all the regularity that economic theory suggests. Firms strive to maximize profits with these technologies, which has led them to invest in capital that both replaces workers and complements their skills. Machines and computers have displaced the workers who perform routine but costly tasks. While this has displaced some occupations in all skill levels, it has fallen hardest on middle-skill workers. Notably, these are the workers who benefitted most from early 20th century technologies. Technology has also been used to complement the skills of workers.
Michael Hicks: Sanders, Trump and the mysteries of economic populism
MUNCIE – No matter the outcome of this presidential election, in most US counties a majority of primary voters will have cast ballots for some sort of economic populism (a term we interpret as platform appealing to the hopes and fears of people). That suggests one of two outcomes. Either we will elect an overt populist now or face highly polarized anger among primary voters again in 2020. Discerning actual policy recommendations from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is not a trivial task. To be fair to both men, few presidential candidates in recent decades (other than current Speaker of the House) have offered a clear suite of policies. Sanders has laid out policy proposals, some of which with funding details and employment projections. This doesn’t help much for the simple fact that Sanders has also spent a lengthy career as the least relevant elected official in Washington.
Michael Hicks: Manufacturing jobs, production & snake oil
MUNCIE – The Department of Commerce data have just been released, and 2015 was another record year for manufacturing production in the United States, as I expect will be the case for Indiana when those numbers come out. Simply put, when you adjust for inflation, American manufacturing firms are making more goods altogether than at any other time in history. This is not some slick statistical artifice. We made more cars here in Indiana and across the U.S. in 2015 than in any other year in history. American manufacturing has never been stronger, yet the airwaves are cluttered with snake oil purveyors who tell us otherwise. They rely on widespread fear and anger, with which I understand. But, these demagogues also prey on our ignorance, for which there is no excuse. Employment in American manufacturing has been growing since 2010, the longest period of growth since the 1994-2000 stretch, right after NAFTA. While these small periods of growth tell us something about the effects of international trade, they are only transient. Indiana has been losing manufacturing employment for a half century and the nation as a whole has for 40 years.
Michael Hicks: Big box stores and TIFs
MUNCIE – The legislature is currently wrestling with an issue that many folks might view as a fairly mundane tax issue; the appropriate property valuation for big box stores. Folk wisdom is right; tax policy is mundane, but it is a serious worry for some municipalities. The issue also contains an important lesson on tax and economic development policy. Big box stores like Walmart or Target own both active stores and quite a few empty locations, often referred to as “ghost boxes” or “dark boxes.” The property values of these active stores are assessed on their revenue potential and the cost of the building and structures. The empty stores are judged as worth much less. This has prompted tax courts to force the reassessment of all those open big box stores, equalizing them to the value of the “ghost boxes.” This will profoundly reduce assessed value and property tax collections in many places.
Michael Hicks: Some surprising lessons from Carrier
MUNCIE – The closure of two manufacturing plants employing some 2,100 Hoosiers has angered and disappointed many. That is understandable, as is the political rhetoric surrounding it, along with the simple question, “Just who are the bottom dwellers who own these companies?” Brace yourself for the answer. United Technologies, the parent company of both plants, is 83 percent owned by institutional investors and mutual funds. And who owns these mutual funds you might ask? Well it is us, and I don’t mean that in the abstract. The Indiana Public Retirement System, including the Indiana Teachers Retirement Fund, TIAA-CREF (the leading retirement fund to almost all colleges and universities in the state) and even the United Steel Workers retirement plan, invests in United Technologies. My guess is that half of working Hoosier households in Indiana own a part of these companies. We are all capitalists now, and that ought to make us a bit more thoughtful about our policies towards business. The now-closing plants made HVAC systems. The biggest demand for these involves new home construction, which has been dormant for a decade. The workers who make these products reportedly earn $20 to $24 an hour. Health care benefits are surely more than $7 an hour, and other costs at least $4 an hour.
Michael Hicks: Facing up to the 'cost disease'
MUNCIE - It is not difficult to find fault with the rising expenditures in higher education, or to feel frustrated with the ever greater cost of educating children. Both past and future readers of this column will be exposed to my criticism of universities and schools that waste public dollars. Still, it is important from time to time to state what should be obvious; costs associated with education are likely to continue to rise for reasons unrelated to waste or ineptitude. Let me explain. Across the economy, the past 300 years or so have seen a rapid growth in productivity of the typical worker. Stated more plainly, the value of goods and services produced by a typical worker has risen enormously, driven by all sorts of things from technology to education to personal freedom. This productivity growth has made us shift our spending, both privately and publicly, to things once considered a luxury. Universal education through high school and open enrollment universities are two of these things. But, our productivity in these two sectors has not seen the growth that has characterized manufacturing, transport, agriculture, food service or most other sectors. Most of the modern wonders that improve productivity—technology, organization, supply chains—have done almost nothing to impact the costs of education.
Michael Hicks: End of a bubble, 2016 stytle
MUNCIE – World financial and commodity markets are now poised for a fourth week of spasmodic turbulence. In constant dollar terms oil is nearly as cheap as it has ever been, while China faces the slowest economic growth of modern times. Here in the US, December retail sales growth was actually negative, marking an awful season. Then, stocks waited until the first trading day in January to plummet, fueling fury about stock manipulation in every conspiracy theorist and Bernie Sanders supporter. On the face of it, this has many of the hallmarks of a recession. And it may be, but what if instead of a recession, what we see now are markets of all types returning to where they are supposed to be? That is the interesting question.
Michael Hicks: Cures for troubled local finance
MUNCIE – Few, if any, thoughtful observers of Indiana government would conclude that the current local tax system is sufficient to meet the needs of the 21st century. The tax and spending innovations of the past decade have dramatically improved the prospects of the Indiana economy. However, a half-century of bad investment has left many cities and towns in such a sorry state that they cannot attract nor retain young families with options, much less offer them quality schools, decent neighborhoods and safe streets even if they stayed. This is a painful thing to write, but the relative or absolute population decline in 80 out of 92 Hoosier counties is stark testament to this difficult truth. Many men and women in local government, whose judgement I respect, argue that they desperately need more tax revenues. For many places this is likely true, and it is probable that many voters share this belief. Indeed, it is certain that in many communities, local tax referendums would result in more money for schools, roads and quality of place improvements.
Michael Hicks: Regional Cities, Stellar Communities are key
MUNCIE – Among the first lessons I absorbed as a second lieutenant was simply, “Always reinforce success, not failure.” But one need not graduate from the Infantry School for such a lesson. Any parent knows full well that long-term success comes only from rewarding good, not bad, behaviors. And so it has been with two enormously successful state development programs; Stellar Communities and the Regional Cities Initiative. It is easy to understand cynicism about these programs. Many places in Indiana are represented by multiple economic development groups with numerous expensive dust-covered plans adorning their office shelves. Nearly all clever folks know that government planning of private sector activity has universally failed, and that is most definitely not what is happening in either Stellar Communities or Regional Cities. Understanding that is critical to this debate.
Michael Hicks: Larger context for Regional Cities
MUNCIE – This week, the state announced the three communities who will receive funding in the first round of the Regional Cities Initiative. I have already discussed the individual plans, but now would like to lay out the larger context of the Regional Cities Initiative, what it is and is not, and why it is important to Indiana. First, I want to dispel the notion that the regional economic development plans use traditional central planning. If that were true, I would wish to be the first to speak against them. Regional economic development plans of the type proposed in the Regional Cities Initiative are primarily priority lists drawn from the expressed interests of voters. What is striking in these plans is that most of the things listed are simply what successful Hoosier cities did a century ago to attract people into their communities. Second, the regional nature of the effort is important. Working within regions is critical because we live in a world of scarce resources and household location decisions are heavily influenced by regional variety. It is not important that every small community have every asset, for they surely cannot. What does matter is that every region have a variety of different amenities.
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