Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jensen on the costly politics of tax competition

Nate Jensen recently published an op-ed of note, asking "Why Are Your State Tax Dollars Subsidizing Corporations?" Nate has studied tax and corporate decision making for some time, and recently published "Incentives to Pander: How Politicians Use Corporate Welfare for Political Gain", which is on my reading list. This is, of course, a favourite topic of mine. A few excerpts from the op-ed:
Politicians are using public policies, from renaming a city to offering billions of dollars in grants, infrastructure improvements and tax abatements, to take credit for companies’ location decisions. ...
In all likelihood, incentives are overpaying firms, leading to lost resources that could be used for other purposes. If the incentives don’t pay for themselves, they must be paid for by either higher taxes or decreases on government spending. Local school districts are vocal opponents of incentives; they see their tax base being given away in the name of economic development. 
But in fact it is most likely the quality of the work force that will be the deciding factor for Amazon, not the billions in incentives. Proponents of incentives often claim that these subsidies pay for themselves, and voters often support these efforts, believing the promises of good jobs. But this is possible only if governments perfectly target the companies that require incentives and pay just enough, and not a penny more, to sway a company’s decision.
...Political pandering is behind this explosion. But there is also some of what Brink Lindsey of the Niskanen Center and the political scientist Steven Teles call the “captured economy.” In between these politicians and corporations are economic incentive consultants, tax professionals and lobbyists all providing ways for businesses to maximize their take, and getting a percentage of these incentives in return.
There is a role for government in economic development. State and local governments can help businesses without access to finance survive and expand, provide worker training that is valuable to residents and companies, and invest in traditional education from pre-K to college. There are certainly worthy investments that can be made. But $7 million for Carrier, $3 billion for Foxconn and billions for Amazon is just using the public coffers for political theater.  
Highly recommended reading in full for anyone interested in tax competition.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Crisan and McKenzie on R&D Subsidies in Canada

The latest edition of the Canadian Tax Journal [gated] has a nice article by Daria Crisan and Kenneth J McKenzie that documents Canada's relatively generous tax subsidies for R&D spending, yet relatively underwhelming investment by large corporations, over the period 1981-2016. The article briefly summarizes the chronology of federal R&D programs and gives an overview of provincial policies. It finds that while Canada's spending on R&D is high relative to peer countries, the amount of R&D being undertaken relative to GDP consistently underperforms these peers and continues to decline. The bulk of the article is a presentation of data showing these trends. The conclusion is intriguing, positing three possible explanations for the puzzle of high spending but low investment:
The first is the rather obvious point that it may well be that Canada’s r&d performance would have been even worse in the absence of the subsidies. Of course we don’t observe this counterfactual, but it is consistent with the above observations. 
The second comment is more speculative ... Canada relies much more than
other countries on the type of “indirect” tax subsidies that we consider here, which
are generally available to all companies, as opposed to “direct” subsidies, such as
targeted grants. It could be that the nature of r&d subsidies in Canada—the reliance
on indirect tax incentives rather than direct grants—is the problem. ...
This leads to our third, and final, observation. To our knowledge, there is in fact
very little rigorous empirical evidence regarding the efficacy of direct versus
indirect government subsidies for r&d. Moving in this direction may well be the
right thing to do, but this seems to us to be based more on faith, and perhaps some
frustration with the Canadian “r&d policy puzzle,” than on solid empirical evidence.
Our hope is that the data presented here provide, at least in part, the basis
for additional research in this regard in a Canadian context. 
The authors conclude that their own ongoing research involves an empirical investigation of the effectiveness of direct and indirect incentives in promoting business r&d investment in Canadian

I don't know whether the type of spending matters in terms of investment incentives. I would think that it matters what the spending is related to. For example, does spending a lot of money on companies to patent things actually lead to "innovation," whatever that word means? What I have read to date suggests not. There seems to be a strong connection of innovation spending toward traditional legal rights in copyright and patent, but these rights seem decreasingly relevant to many contemporary innovative business models.

Despite a general lack of empirical evidence that taxpayer dollars are well spent on R&D subsidies, governments everywhere spend and spend and spend to spur innovation. As a result empirical studies  that shed light on the efficacy of this spending will always be welcome. If the studies show that traditional modes of subsidizing R&D do not provide the intended results, the question is whether governments themselves will be willing and able to innovate in terms of how they support innovation. From the chronology presented herein and my own research on the topic, the prospects seem dim. I look forward to seeing more of this important research.