Misconceptions about corporate welfare

20th November 2018 Off By binary
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There are many distortions in the US economy.  As a result, a decision by a corporation to move to a new area often has important spillover benefits.  Indeed this is also true of many individuals.  California would gain significant net benefits if Warren Buffett were to move here from Nebraska.  These are not good reasons, however, to oppose a national policy that discourages sweetheart deals that try to induce interstate migration.

Here’s an analogy.  The fact that Barry Bonds hit more home runs after using steroids is not a good argument against a major league ban on steroid use.  (There may be good arguments against such a ban–I’m agnostic.  But the effectiveness of steroids for individual players is not such an argument.)

Suppose that California collects $10 billion in revenue from corporate income taxes.  Also suppose that the optimal corporate tax rate is zero.  Now assume that California raises the tax rate on most corporations, in order to cut the rate on a favored few.  Revenue stays at $10 billion.  If you look at the select few beneficiaries in isolation, it might look like the subsidies make sense.  They may add net benefits to the state, even at the reduced tax rate.  But that ignores what Bastiat called “the unseen”.  The negative effect on non-favored companies.

New York may gain net benefits from attracting Amazon.  But how many firms will leave New York as a result of the higher taxes imposed on other companies, as a result of the subsidies provided to Amazon. In my view, states should compete for business and for individuals by offering an attractive economic climate for all people.

I do understand that other approaches are possible.  You could have state officials in California visit billionaires in New York, offering a 5-year income tax holidays if they moved west.  These billionaires would pay more in sales and property taxes than they’d use in public services. Meanwhile, New York officials could do the same.

Does this make sense from a national perspective?  It’s hard to see how—even if you think state income taxes are a bad idea.  For instance, this type of policy regime tends to encourage corruption.  Resources are wasted on the negotiations.  Individuals will game the system by moving around to earn tax holidays.  Companies will do the same.  Politicians are babes in the woods compared to big corporations—look how Wisconsin’s governor got taken to the cleaners by Foxconn.

Just say no.

To summarize:

1. When considering the benefits from attracting favored firms, one needs to consider the indirect effect on non-favored firms.

2. Even in the rare case where corporate sweetheart deals help a given state after accounting for the negative effect on other firms, it’s still probably in the national interest to a have a policy that discourages such deals.  As an analogy, even if monopsony power means that the optimal tariff for big countries is positive, it probably makes sense for the US and the Eurozone to sign a free trade agreement with zero tariffs.

Let’s adopt a policy of treating individuals equally, and also treating companies equally.  That policy is likely to be best in the long run, even if there are occasions where favoring a certain person or company might produce local benefits. Don’t underestimate the value of simple, clear and transparent tax regimes that treat everyone equally.


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