September 9, 2013

On Tax Policy And Iocane Powder

Last week, our friend and fellow blogger Dave Helling at the Kansas City Star wrote a critique of my post about how much accumulated income has left Kansas City and Saint Louis since 1992. Missouri’s urban out-migration, he argues, has less to do with economic environments than it does macro trends of suburbanization and warm-weather retirement. “Inconceivable” assertions on his part? Not at all. But that doesn’t really address the actual policy problems — past and present — that have led people to leave Saint Louis and Kansas City.

Suburbanization, whether between or within states, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Lots of factors are considered when people decide to move, and among those considerations is taxes. And to be clear, tax policy matters not just when taxes are reduced or repealed, but also when bad tax policies persist. And a bad, bad tax that both Kansas City and Saint Louis have had for a long time is the earnings tax. As our own Joe Haslag concluded in a policy study way back in 2006:

[T]he growth rate in [the modeled] economy where there is no city earnings tax is 1.72 percent, while the growth rate in the economy with a city earnings tax is 1.66 percent. Thus, a city earnings tax results in the growth rate falling by 0.06 percentage points on an annual basis.

That might seem small, but it can result in large differences in the size of the economy. Suppose that the initial value of the economy’s income is $78 billion. (This is the 2002 personal income level in the Missouri part of the St. Louis metropolitan area). After a generation (25 years), the no-tax economy would be $1.78 billion larger than the economy with a one percent tax rate. That is a difference of 1.5 percent.

Indeed, tax policy can be a contributing (rather than motivating) factor in where people live and grow their businesses. Even small tax policy mistakes can be economically destructive for a city — just more quietly and over a longer horizon. If you hurt your city’s capacity to grow economically, you truly hurt your city’s future.

Alas, unlike Iocane powder, it’s very difficult to build up an immunity to destructive taxes over time. And obviously, suburbs developed around Kansas City on the Missouri side as they did on the Kansas side. But the fact that Jackson County lost “only” a half billion dollars of Missouri income to Johnson County before Kansas enacted significant tax cuts in 2012 (and 2013) should be cold, cold comfort to Missouri tax cut opponents. Tax policy was a factor considered in moving from Missouri to Kansas before; it may be the preeminent factor considered today. Where people retire is a thornier proposition bound up with both economic and non-economic considerations, but one thing is certain — Kansas Citians haven’t moved, and won’t be moving, en masse to Olathe, Kan., for its sun-kissed shores. Will they move there for its tax climate? Quite possibly. And that’s the problem.

On a more personal note: I have heard from businessmen and businesswomen across Kansas City about the pressure longtime-Missouri businesses are under to consider a move to Kansas — motivated almost entirely by the new taxing environment there. Businesses already are asking the question, “Is it time to leave Kansas City?” I cannot stress enough how serious their concerns are. How long can Kansas City and the state of Missouri afford to ignore them before risking a plunge off the Cliffs of Insanity?

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