Making assumptions is a necessary part of an economist’s work — but that’s no excuse for failing to reveal them when you make your case for a particular public policy choice, as Kriss Sjoblom does in his recent Seattle Times column when he asserts:
…tax hikes will cost Washingtonians jobs and depress the economy. The damage will be greater than it would have been had lawmakers shown more restraint and cut spending deeper.
To support his point of view, Sjoblom cites a recent report by the Washington Research Council, where he is vice president of research. But a close look at that report reveals it is based on two assumptions that are far from realistic:
- Assumption 1: All new state revenue will be raised through a (large) increase in either the sales or B&O tax. Reality: Those tax increases are both vastly larger than and very different from anything legislators have considered this session.
Given the taxes modeled in the WRC report, it isn’t surprising they predict large job losses. But those aren’t the only options available to policymakers for raising revenue, and the choice of tax does make an economic difference, as we’ll see later.
- Assumption 2: All new revenue from the tax increase (approx. $1 billion) will be spent only on health care. Reality: While technically the state could spend new revenue that way, it’s not really plausible they would.
Here again, neither the House nor the Senate budget plans propose anything remotely like the model in the WRC report.
Later, we come to the the crux of Sjoblum’s argument: states can’t lift themselves up by their own economic bootstraps because they can’t finance stimulus with deficit spending, higher taxes just drive out business, and the money “leaks out” of state borders.
Moreover, he says, economist Mark Zandi’s finding that each dollar of additional state spending has a multiplier effect of $1.41 the economy isn’t relevant to the discussion because Zandi’s research assumes state spending is funded by the federal borrowing.
But if you peel back the layers of Sjoblum’s arguments here, it’s apparent they too rest on a shaky foundation:
- Assumption 3: Job losses due to state tax increases always offset any stimulative effect of state spending. Reality: Even when you account for job losses due to state tax increases, there is still a net job savings compared to the all cuts budget approach Mr. Sjoblum advocates.
As EOI’s policy director Marilyn Watkins wrote in a recent column in the Puget Sound Business Journal [emphasis mine]:
According to Mark Zandi, economic advisor to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and businesses around the world, each $1 of general state spending results in a $1.41 increase in economic activity. Using that multiplier, the $3.4 billion already cut from our state budget will lower our gross state product (GSP) by $4.8 billion through 2011. In 2008, there was one job for every $109,100 of GSP. Using a simple ratio, the loss in GSP equates to about 44,000 fewer jobs throughout Washington’s economy.
Does raising taxes also cost jobs? Yes, but not as many as the equivalent cuts in state spending. Zandi estimates each dollar of tax increase results in a drop of 32 cents to $1.02 in gross product, depending on whether the tax hike falls primarily on the well-to-do who will reduce savings more than spending, or the general public.
Even if the Legislature were to close the entire $2.6 billion gap through new taxes, we’d end up with a net of 9,300 to 26,000 jobs saved across all sectors of the economy. More likely some of it will come from the rainy day and other funds and — if we’re lucky — the federal government, meaning up to 30,000 protected jobs.
Sjoblom calls this approach counterintuitive. But is it? If the tax increases broaden and stabilize the tax base by closing loopholes and special exemptions, it creates a more level economic playing field and a more predictable business climate. If it discourages behaviors with high social costs, like pollution and poor health habits, it saves taxpayer dollars. If it is paid primarily by those who can best afford it, like out-of-state businesses or very wealthy individuals, it won’t markedly depress consumer demand.
Finally, it’s far from clear that “leaks” to other states will offset the effect of state spending, as Sjoblum asserts. There’s a reason it’s called state spending, after all: these public dollars are spent right here in Washington on structures and services that are vital to our local economy and quality of life. Again, Marilyn Watkins:
State spending not only supports school teachers, unemployment insurance counselors, state patrol officers, and other public servants, but also bolsters jobs in the private sector. About 40 percent of state spending goes straight to private firms through purchases and contracted services. And of course, all those teachers and other public employees spend their paychecks, putting even more into local private businesses and sustaining additional jobs.
Do Oregonians, Idahoans and residents of other states benefit to a degree from that spending? Sure they do. But we here in Washington benefit from other states’ spending too.
The larger point is this: wisely invested in good schools, efficient transportation networks, and a clean environment, public spending can make Washington a more attractive place to live, work and do business. In other words, it can actually stimulate economic growth.
That is a far more rational economic approach than engaging in a race to the bottom with the rest of the country to see who can slash their budgets most in the middle of a recession.
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