The restoration of the Kansas Statehouse was featured last fall on an episode of the television program Sunflower Journeys. While providing an interesting look at the history of the stonecarvings on the building’s exterior, the show made a mistaken argument about the economics of the project.
During the 2011 legislative session, the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature decided to borrow an additional $34 million for the renovation of the Kansas Capitol building. Add this to the already-established cost of $285 million, and the total cost now pushes well above $300 million. There’s no guarantee this is all that will be spent.
During the episode Vance Kelley, a project manager for Treanor Architects, promoted the economic development aspects of the capitol building’s restoration. Since the workers are local, he said that utilizing local labor forces means that tax dollars get passed along to local merchants: “Actually we’re generating, I think it’s been estimated between six and seven times the amount of money within the local economy. Preservation actually creates jobs. It is economic development in itself.”
This argument — that government spending of this type creates jobs — is commonly heard from advocates of more government spending. It’s a popular argument among historic preservationists, too, as they seek to justify why their work is so expensive, and why public money should be expended on it.
Does government spending create jobs? The short answer is no. The primary reason is that government can only spend what it takes from someone else. It might do the taking now in the form of taxation. Or it might borrow, which delays taxation to the future. Either way, many people have less money to spend, save, and invest because of the taxation.
Kelley’s argument does have a ring of truth to it. Local merchants — Topeka, he means — are benefiting. Taxpayers across the state are taxed to send money to be spent largely in Topeka. This benefit, however, comes at the expense of spending — and related jobs — in other parts of Kansas. This is a selfish argument.
Kelley may not be aware of the seen and unseen fallacy that pervades popular thinking. When we go to Topeka — or watch taxpayer-funded public television — we can see the glory and magnificence of the government spending on the Kansas Capitol. Finding the harm caused by the taxation necessary to pay for this, however, is disbursed across the state and very difficult to find. But it exists.
Kelley also referenced the multiplier. That’s the observation that money spent gets spent again, and again, and again. That’s true. But advocates of government spending like Kelley think that only government spending is magically multiplied. The truth is that any spending is multiplied in this way. It’s a natural phenomenon of economics.
Some people make the argument that people may not spend their money during uncertain times. Instead, they may save it. But where do savings go? Many people put their money in a bank, which then lends it to people who want to spend it. Other people buy stocks or bonds, or pay down debt. Either action provides funds for others to spend. It’s only when people save money by stuffing it in their mattresses that this argument — that government must spend — applies. And very few people do this.
The further truth is that when spending their own money, people are usually careful. Government? Not so much. Evidence of this is the ornate decorative carvings illustrated in the Sunflower Journeys episode. Few private buildings are built to this standard, because people — even wealthy people — spending their own money don’t value this frivolity very highly.
Instead, it is government, spending taxpayers’ money, that builds elaborate monuments to itself.
There are some cases where we might argue that government spending creates wealth, such as in the building of needed highways. It does not follow, however, that only government is capable of making this investment. Further, streets and highways are far removed from ornate stonecarvings on a government monument.