by James A. Bacon
In his latest post at the Atlantic Cities blog, Richard Florida asserts that a “lower state income tax does not spur economic development.” In support of his proposition, he argues that states with higher tax burdens are more affluent; they have higher concentrations of talent and workers in the so-called “creative” occupations. Writes Florida:
States with tax [income tax] burdens that range from $1,205 to $1,864 per person average $10,000 more in income than states with zero state income taxes — $81,594 versus $69,612. The same pattern is true of wages — states with high collections average $50,610 in wages versus $43,638 for states with low collections.
That’s pretty much his whole argument, although he does cite a two-year-old study from Nevada finding that states with Republican governors are associated with somewhat lower rates of growth and another study that criticizes “business climate” indexes as designed with political ends in mind.
There’s really no excuse for such superficial analysis. Yes, it’s true that high taxes and high incomes are correlated. But which way does the causality run? Do high taxes lead to high incomes, or do high incomes lead to high taxes? I would argue that the high incomes came first and the high taxes followed.
The evidence will show that some high-income states can trace much of their good fortune to historical factors, such as their 19th-century and early 20th-century leadership in the industrial revolution that created the vast wealth that seeded key institutions (universities, especially) necessary for the transition to the late-20th century transition to the knowledge economy. Thus, to pick an obvious example, Massachusetts prospers today because it is home to Harvard, MIT and a host of other highly ranked universities with billion-dollar endowments — not because of the splendiferous benefits conferred by its high taxes. Other states retain pockets of prosperity because they are home to world-class industry clusters that emerged decades ago and that seemingly no amount of mal-governance can dislodge. Think California, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
What small-government conservatives argue is that lower-tax regimes stimulate more economic growth than high-tax regimes. Lower taxes may have little effect on an entrepreneur’s proclivity to launch a new business, but they do allow entrepreneurs to retain more of their earnings, which they can reinvest in growth.
The evidence is indisputable that high-tax states, on average, experience less job creation and significant out-migration to low-tax states. It’s pretty intuitive that people don’t move from New York to, say, Florida, North Carolina or Georgia for the better restaurants and high-brow culture. They move in search of superior job opportunities and lower cost of living. As a result, over a time span measured in decades, the income and wealth gap between Southern states and Northern states has narrowed considerably, even more so if you adjust for the differences in cost of living.
Where the debate gets interesting is when you ask the question, do higher taxes allow some states and local governments to support a higher level of infrastructure, amenity and service that people value more than the taxes they’re paying? Essentially, that is the argument that Florida makes. Insofar as states and regions use higher taxes to pay for better public schools and higher education, there may be some truth to that counter-argument. But when higher taxes go to pork-barrel spending, outrageous retirement packages for public employees and a more generous safety net for the poor, the argument falls apart.
To summarize, taxes are only one variable among many affecting economic growth and they explain only a modest fraction of the variability in growth rates between states. While lower taxes are (to my mind) clearly preferable to higher taxes, it would be unwise to overstate the case and tout them as an economic-development panacea. On the other hand, it is foolish, as Florida has done, to insist they have no significance.
For what it’s worth, Virginia’s income tax burden is 8th highest in the country, according to Tax Foundation data. Maybe that explains why economic growth here is relatively sluggish given the otherwise favorable business climate we have.