Kansas jobs creation numbers in perspective

This week the administration of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced job creation figures that, on the surface, sound like good news. But before we celebrate too much, we need to place the job numbers in context and look at the larger picture, specifically whether these economic development wins are good for the Kansas economy.

The governor’s office announced that since January 10th, almost exactly one-half year ago, the Brownback administration is taking credit for creating 3,163 jobs. These jobs, according to the governor’s office, are in companies that are moving to Kansas or expanding their current operations. Some of the jobs, like those in the recently-announced Mars Chocolate plant to be built in Topeka, won’t start for perhaps two years.

To place this number on an annual basis, extrapolating to a full year, we get 6,326 jobs created during the first year of Brownback’s term.

That sound like a lot of jobs. But we need to place that number in context. To do so, I gathered some figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in particular figures for the gross number of jobs created in the private sector. According to BLS, “Gross job gains are the sum of increases in employment from expansions at existing units and the addition of new jobs at opening units.” In other words, jobs created — just like the governor’s definition.

Looking at the numbers, we find that for the years 2000 to 2009, the Kansas economy created gross jobs in the private sector at the average rate of 293,335 per year. Of course, jobs are lost, too. In Kansas, again for 2000 to 2009, there was a net loss of 61,394 jobs in the private sector. Not a good number.

Each year, then, many jobs are created and lost, nearly 300,000 per year in Kansas. This illustrates the dynamic nature of the economy. Each year many jobs are created, and many are lost. Even in 2009 — a recession year — the Kansas economy created 232,717 jobs in the private sector. That same year 294,111 jobs were lost. But in most years, the number of jobs created is pretty close to the number of jobs lost.

Kansas job gains and lossesKansas job gains and losses

Now we have context. If we compare the 6,326 jobs (the extrapolated annual rate) the state created through its economic development efforts to the average number of private sector jobs created each year, we find that number to be 2.2 percent.

If we use a recession year (2009) figure for private sector job creation, the state’s efforts amount to 2.7 percent of the jobs created by the private sector economy.

These numbers, I would say, are small. About one of 40 jobs created in Kansas is created through the efforts of the state’s economic development machinery. This assumes that these jobs would not have been created without government intervention, and I think that’s something we can’t assume one hundred percent.

These jobs that Brownback takes credit for come at great cost. In the case of Mars, the incentive package is reported to be worth $9 million, or $45,000 for each of the 200 people to be initially hired. I haven’t asked the Department of Commerce for a full rundown of the incentives offered, but in my experience the press releases and news stories based on them understate the full cost of the incentives.

But in any case, the incentives used by the state’s economic development efforts have costs. Some require the direct expenditure of state funds.

Some incentives require that the state spend money through the tax system in the form of tax credits. These expenditures made through the tax system have the same fiscal impact on the state’s budget as if the legislature appropriated funds and wrote a check for the amount of the tax credit.

Other incentives require that the state give up a claim to tax revenue that it would otherwise collect. This means that other taxpayers must make up the difference, unless the state were to reduce spending.

The cost of these incentives is born by the taxpayers of the state of Kansas. This cost is a negative drag on jobs that would have been created or retained in companies that don’t receive incentives. The Brownback administration knows this, although it doesn’t recognize this job loss when it trumpets its accomplishments in creating new jobs through targeted economic development incentives. One of the major initiatives of Brownback is to reduce Kansas taxes, particularly the personal and corporate income tax, in order to grow the Kansas economy. The governor — correctly — recognizes that low taxes are good for economic growth.

The governor also needs to recognize that targeted economic development incentives have a cost. That cost is paid in the form of taxes that someone else pays. That cost leads to foregone economic activity, and that leads to lost jobs.

While the state’s wins in job creation are easy to see — there are government employees paid to make sure we’re aware of them — the lost jobs, however, are spread throughout the state. These job losses don’t often take the form of a large — or even small — business closing or moving to another state, although sometimes it does.

Instead, the job loss occurs in dribs and drabs across the state. A restaurant manager finds his store is not as busy as last month, so he lets a server go. A small retail outlet finds it can’t quite keep up with its overhead, so it shuts down. These events don’t often make news. The jobs lost are difficult to detect — nearly invisible — although the cumulative impact is very real.

Instead of relying on traditional, targeted economic development efforts, Kansas needs to follow the advice of Dr. Art Hall. He recommends policies to encourage as much business experimentation as possible. These policies, basically, call for low taxes for all business firms. Then, it is through markets, not the government’s economic development officials, that successful and productive firms are identified.

Portions of Dr. Hall’s advice was incorporated in Governor Brownback’s economic development plan. Specifically, page 10 of the plan contains this language: “Over the decades, Kansas has enacted a variety of tax policies intended to advance economic development. Many of them provide a meaningful economic incentive to make new investments and create new jobs. Almost all of the policies provide a meaningful incentive to a small number of worthy businesses to the exclusion of tens of thousands of other worthy businesses. The initiatives in this plan seek to end the exclusion. They begin the process of fulfilling the vision that every business matters; they seek to replace the old vision of ‘targeting’ with a new vision of ‘dynamism.'”

It’s time that the governor and his administration apply this advice. That’s going to be hard to do. The crowing over the Mars deal — the very type of targeted economic development “win” that the plan criticizes — shows that politicians love to be seen as actively pursuing and creating jobs. A dynamic, free market-based job-creating economy requires that politicians and bureaucrats keep their hands off — something that goes against their very nature.

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