Kenneth P. Thomas is Professor of Political Science and Fellow in the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the author of "Competing for Capital: Europe and North America in a Global Era" and "Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital." He blogs at Middle Class Political Economist.
It's no secret that state and local government employment has nosedived during the current economic crisis. According to the St. Louis Fed, total local government employment has declined from 14,481,000 when the recession began in December 2007 to 14,033,000 in March. State government employment has fallen from 5,139,000 to 5,050,000 over the same period, for a total loss of 537,000 state and local government jobs.
This starkly illustrates the opportunity cost of out-of-control use of subsidies to business at the state and local level. In my academic work, I estimated these to be $48.8 billion a year in 1996, of which $26.4 billion was for investment attraction, and almost $70 billion in 2005, of which $46.8 billion was aimed specifically at investment attraction.
Many critics of investment incentives, such as Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, argue that the money would generally be better spent on education and infrastructure, policies that benefit businesses generally as well as the entire population. My cost estimates show just how true this is.
Total business subsidies could be used to hire 1.4 million government workers at $50,000 per year in salary and benefits. Instead, what we have seen in state after state is that there have been sharp cuts to these very areas, even extending to such economic development crown jewels as the state university systems in California and North Carolina, among others.
This is doubly short-sighted: It weakens the very factors that make a state or locality attractive to investment in the first place, and the state/local economic development subsidies largely cancel each other out with little net effect on the overall location of investment in the country. From the point of view of the country as a whole, then, most of these subsidies are a waste of money. But changing the way the economic development game is played will require tremendous effort at the local, state, and federal government level.