By Robert Mann
It’s an article of faith among conservative leaders like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal that state economies thrive when they reduce or eliminate progressive taxes, slash public services, cut investment in education, shrink their state’s social safety net, and diminish the power of unions.
It’s a message that Jindal — as demonstrated by his actions over five years as governor — has thoroughly embraced. And it’s message is aggressively sold to and adopted by other Republican governors and state legislators by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy, corporate-sponsored organization that supplied many of Jindal’s so-called “education reform” proposals in the 2012 legislative session.
Jindal, as you may recall, is a committed ALEC disciple. He spoke at the organization’s 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans, and there received a prominent award for his adherence to ALEC’s principles.
Indeed, ALEC has a compelling message: Cut the size of government and slash taxes — and your state’s economy will boom. It’s a message that sounds good and often makes sense — that is, until you look closely at the evidence.
If you do look closely, you’ll discover that what Jindal and other conservative leaders are peddling is, in the words of the Iowa Policy Project, “snake oil.”
“In general, states that spend less, especially on transfer programs, and states that tax less, particularly on productive activities such as working or investing, experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more.”
“. . . the evidence behind taxpayers voting with their feet—[is] very strongly against high taxes.”
“The no income tax states outperform their high tax counterparts across the board in gross state product growth, population growth, job growth, and, perhaps shockingly, even tax receipt growth.”
“. . . the death tax is one of the worst possible taxes for state economies.”
The problem with these statements, and many others in the ALEC report, is that they do not stand up to scrutiny.
That scrutiny comes in the form of a November 2012 report by the Good Jobs First and Iowa Policy Project, “Selling Snake Oil to the States: The American Legislative Exchange Council’s Flawed Prescriptions for Prosperity.” The report, written by Greg LeRoy and Philip Mattera, concludes:
A hard look at the actual data finds that the Alec-Laffer recommendations not only fail to predict positive results for state economies—the policies they endorse actually forecast worse state outcomes for job creation and paychecks. That is, states that were rated higher on ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007, based on 15 “fiscal and regulatory policy variables,” have actually been doing worse economically in the years since, while the less a state conformed with ALEC policies the better off it was.
Read the report for yourself. It’s a treasure-trove of evidence debunking the whole wacky supply-side economic theories that have governed the Republican Party for the past 30 years. But here are a few helpful excerpts that are particularly relevant to those of us who live in states, like Louisiana, with governors totally beholden to the corporate interests that are selling this economic snake oil.
ALEC-Laffer claim that lowering state and local taxes produces much greater job growth; in actuality, such taxes are such a tiny cost factor for businesses, and come with higher taxes on others or lower quality public services, that such a strategy fails
ALEC-Laffer claim that a low top personal income tax rate is a key to small business success; in actuality, property and sales taxes—ignored by ALEC-Laffer—are far more important issues
ALEC-Laffer claim that high top personal income tax rates and the presence of estate and inheritance taxes cause large-scale out-migration of high-income individuals; in reality, migration has little to do with taxes, and there is no plausible case for state estate taxes affecting job-creating investment
The ALEC report asserts that state tax rates in many instances approach “Laffer Curve” territory, where tax cuts would actually increase tax revenue; in reality, tax cuts reduce revenue and result in the defunding of public goods such as education and infrastructure, which really do matter for economic development
A remarkable finding in the Iowa Policy Project report, stated a few paragraphs above, is worth repeating: states that swallowed ALEC’s economic snake oil have done worse than state that did not.
. . . actual results are the opposite of the ALEC claim. The more a state’s policies mirrored the ALEC low-tax/regressive taxation/limited government agenda, the lower the median family income; this is true for every year from 2007 through 2011. . . . The relationship is not only negative each year, it also became worse over time: the better a state did on the ALEC Outlook Ranking, the more family income declined from 2007 to 2011. . . . The more a state followed the Alec-Laffer policies, the higher its poverty rate, every year from 2007 to 2011.
And what do Fisher and Mattera prescribe in lieu of the ALEC snake oil? Well, they advise against slashing income taxes to spur small business job growth, explaining
Income taxes, on the other hand, are low or nonexistent in the early years of a business when it is showing losses; they are payable only to the extent that a business has gotten off the ground and is generating a profit, and even then will often remain low, or nonexistent, for years as the early losses are carried forward. Clearly if a state wants to encourage entrepreneurship and help really small businesses, it should shift taxes from sales and property to income. But Rich States, Poor States would have us do the reverse. It’s another example of how ALEC and Laffer are fixated on progressivity (which most affects high-income individuals and larger corporations) and will employ any argument, valid or not, against it.
For those interested in learning what really does spur economic growth in states, the authors of the Iowa Policy Project study note that there exists “a large volume of research investigating this question over the past 40 years.” And what is the conclusion of these studies?
The preponderance of the evidence from many dozens of studies over a period of 30 years or more is that business tax cuts, if they could be enacted without cutting public spending, have some positive growth effect on state economic growth, but that this effect is quite small. These statistically controlled policy experiments are in effect holding all else equal. It is important to understand what this means. The research does not imply that a 10 percent cut in taxes on business that is paid for by cutting 10 percent of the state budget would produce 3 percent growth. Such a balanced budget policy (and states of course must balance their budgets) might well produce no growth at all, especially in the long run, because budget cuts necessarily mean cuts in state and local services essential to the functioning of the economy. As [Professor Timothy] Bartik himself has said: “[A]n economic development policy of business tax cuts may fail to increase jobs in a state or metropolitan area if it leads to a deterioration of public services to business. An economic development policy of tax increases may succeed in increasing jobs if it significantly improves public services to business.”
The authors’ conclusion is fairly simple and impressively substantiated in their report: ALEC’s snake oil does little more than provide “a recipe for economic inequality and declining incomes for most citizens and for depriving state and local governments of the revenue needed to maintain public infrastructure and education systems that are the underpinnings of long-term economic growth.”
That’s also a very nice summary of Jindal’s failed approach to government. It might also explain why, the governor’s economic development hype to the contrary, Louisiana’s economy has remained mired in recession throughout Jindal’s time as governor.