The mantra of Republican governors (and in Congress) has been that taxes must be cut in order to create jobs. In previous posts I’ve dealt with the confusion about how federal level changes income taxes might or might not affect the strength of the economy. Most of the federal tax discussion focuses on individual income taxes. But at the statehouse level, Republican governors have been pounding a theme that claims business tax cuts will drive economic growth in general and job creation in particular.
In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder has just pushed through a massive restructuring of Michigan taxes. The old Michigan Business Tax (a complicated scheme applying to all businesses) was repealed. In it’s place is a new corporations-0nly 6% profits tax. The new tax collects only a small fraction of the revenue the old tax did, so individual tax burdens have been increased, particularly on seniors and low-income folks. In summary, it is a giant tax shift: lower taxes for businesses and higher taxes for individuals, especially the poor and seniors.
Why? Jobs, we’re told. The Governor, a self-proclaimed very smart person (“nerd”), keeps telling people that Michigan needs new jobs and the way to create them is to cut business taxes. Even before the new tax cuts were officially passed, the evidence is starting to come in that the idea doesn’t work, as shown here. But the governor continues to claim jobs will result if we only cut business taxes. I’m skeptical, but willing to listen. After all, he’s a really smart person (his campaign ads keep telling us that, so it must be true, right?) So I was very excited this morning as I’m driving to work and listening to Michigan Public Radio (recording of program as MP3 available here) to hear the Governor would be on the show live. Maybe he could enlighten me about how this “tax cuts create jobs” stuff works.
The very first question was fantastic. An alert listener asked (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Precisely what empirical evidence exists that your business tax cuts will create additional jobs and just how many jobs should we expect?” Snyder couldn’t give a straight answer. He immediately responded with “It’s just a matter of basic economics. When a business have more money or resources it can create more jobs” (again paraphrase).
Unfortunately for the people of Michigan, Snyder has it all wrong. That’s not basic economics. He’s thinking basic accounting. Basic economics says businesses will hire more workers when they perceive there’s demand (spending) for their product at profitable prices. Taxes don’t really enter into it. That’s not just basic economics theory, it’s also confirmed by repeated surveys of business managers. Tax rates, particularly state tax rates, are waaaaay down the list of factors important in deciding on hiring and staffing levels. Snyder should know better. He himself, when he was CEO of Gateway Computers, moved the company from South Dakota, a low tax state, to California, a very high tax state? Why would he have done that if taxes were so important?
The moderator, Rick Pluta, to his credit, didn’t bail out Snyder but moving quickly to the next question. Instead we were treated to the Governor claiming that “it’s not possible to pinpoint exactly how many or which jobs might be created by the tax cuts, but we believe it will happen”. That’s my point here. There is no evidence. There is no sound theory. Instead, what we have is a faith-based policy. We cut taxes for businesses in total and eliminated them completely for thousands of businesses in belief that jobs will be created. There’s no real evidence. There’s just a belief in the magic jobs genie*. The jobs genie only comes out when taxes are cut. And when taxes are cut, the genie just magically appears and inspires businesses to go crazy and say “Hey let’s hire people. Let’s create jobs!”
Snyder then proceeded to offer his only empirical evidence. “We have some surveys where many of these small and medium businesses say they would consider creating new jobs in response to this bill”. The Governor’s a lousy social scientist and economist. Contrary to Snyder’s claims, it is possible to study and quantify this stuff. Applied economists have done this stuff for decades. It’s our bread-and-butter. There are many studies on the jobs impact of state business tax cuts. The evidence does not support Snyder’s position. Indeed, contrary to his claims that they don’t know how many jobs will be created, the state treasurer and budget office must necessarily make estimates of state employment under different tax schemes in order to make budget forecasts. Snyder is hiding because the evidence doesn’t support what he wants to claim. He prefers to conjure magic beings like the jobs genie.
Snyder did say that employment is how he should be measured as governor. What he didn’t say is that the appropriate measure is how much Michigan’s employment grows relative to the national average. If the U.S. as a whole simply manages to not have a major recession while he’s in office, then Michigan employment will grow. The U.S. economy as a whole is the dominant influence on Michigan employment, not what the state government does. But, the policies of the state government have a major influence on whether the state does better or worse than national average. For the last approx. 15 months, Michigan has performed significantly better than the national norm, albeit Michigan started in the worst condition. (Nevada has that title now). The clock is ticking now. It’s up to Snyder to prove that, contrary to historical evidence and his own prior business decisions, that state business tax cuts will create faster than national average job growth.
* The magic Jobs Genie is only one of a pantheon of magical creatures that animate the economic theories of many politicians these days. There’s also the Banking Unicorn and the Investment Confidence Fairy and others. I’ll talk about those in future posts.