Kansas Statehouse renovations examined

The restoration of the Kansas Statehouse was featured on a recent episode of 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 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, however, 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 building are built to this standard, because people — even wealthy people — spending their own money don’t value this frivolity very highly.

Instead, it’s government, spending taxpayers’ money, that ends up building elaborate monuments to itself.

There are some cases where 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.

8 Comments

  • Kansas Taxpayer -

    This is one thing that the Legislature has done I am very proud of. If you haven’t personally seen the renovated Capitol you should go see it before making judgement on the restoration project. It really makes you proud to be a Kansan. We have one of the most beautiful and most historic Capitol buildings in the nation. As a Conservative Republican I think it was money well spent. We had ignored taking care of the State Capitol Building for decades.
    Thank You Legislators.

  • The fact of the matter is that NO ONE, including government, builds ornate buildings like this anymore. Buildings like these were created back when labor and materials were cheap. But now that we have it, it’s imperitive to preserve what we have. We’ll probably never, ever build like this again, using these kinds of materials. It’s important to preserve this building for today and for future generations. It would be a shame to let the hard work of early Kansans simply crumble to dust.

  • The copper being placed over stair railings and endposts is extremely expensive and unnecessary. The genuine marble in the ladies restroom on the ground floor is also extremely expensive and unnecessary. Marble is not very durable, especially when exposed to water, and will simply need replacing again before long.

    The luxurious carved wood stalls in the ladies restroom are unnecessary.

    The cage elevator, where an employee sits all day and chooses the floor for each legislator or passenger is unnecessary.

    The custom murals on the walls are unnecessary.

    There are likely many more things that were not important to the preservation of the structure for which a less costly alternative could have been used. In some cases the cheaper alternative would’ve been more durable.

  • Dear Wendy: I respectfully submit that for the most part, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Marble is not durable in the presence of water? Really? The Trevi Fountain in Rome has been around since 1453 and it seems to be doing pretty well.

    The murals are unncessary? Which murals? I hope you’re not refering to the PRICELESS John Steuart Curry Murals. Sure. Let’s just whitewash over some old murals that, in the unlikely event were to be sold, would probably bring millions of dollars.

    Historic Preservation means saving the original materials whenever possible and, in lieu of being able to save, using new materials that match the original materials whenever possible.

    Are you sure your name isn’t “Bob”?

  • Dear A Kansan,
    I respectfully ask that you consider this information:

    Citing one anecdote where you believe a particular variety & block of marble has performed great does not all marble, nor grades of marble durable make. (that’s called “anecdotal evidence”)

    I certainly hope our legislators didn’t purchase the Topeka restroom marble from the same spot in the Italian quarry from which the Trevi Fountain was carved. If they did there ought to be an investigation.

    FYI:

    There is a wide variety of sources of marble & grades of marble. Marble is a carbonate and reacts with water which contains acids.

    What is urine? Urine contains uric acid along with other components. If a person consumes a high protein diet his/her urine becomes more acidic. (Women trying to lose weight often consume diets higher in protein).

    A restroom is not a good application in which to use marble. Marble stains easily and is not as durable as several other types of stone, and certainly not as durable as modern, less expensive alternatives.

    So when you are using the ladies room at the capital try not to get urine on your hands or anywhere else in the washroom.

    The gents will have to fill us in on whether or not marble was used on their side of the restroom debate.

  • Wendy: points taken.

    I hear that women don’t generally pee all over the place the way gents do. Perhaps they’ll have to replace the marble in the men’s room in another 100 years or so.

  • Dear A Kansan:

    Good point! It might be the gents under age 10 that have a little more trouble with that aim. The legislature probably gave the gents urinals, we just hope they aren’t made of marble.

    Still waiting on the gents to inform us!

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