Politics and Policy: A Cautionary Tale

I’m sharing my next column for the IBJ, which expands upon my earlier post, and considers the policy issues that the Litebox blunder illuminate.

How did we get from “Enterprise Zones” to Litebox?

Back in my Hudnut Administration days, I remember enthusiastic discussions about Enterprise Zones–a new tool promoted by then-Congressman Jack Kemp to encourage investment in depressed areas of the city. The idea was to offer tax incentives to businesses who were willing to locate in such areas and hire the unemployed who lived there.

It was a great—if reality-challenged—idea.

It didn’t take long for Carmel and other affluent bedroom communities to begin competing for those employers by offering incentives of their own. I don’t know whether those original Enterprise Zones still exist, but I do know that state and local governments are all falling over themselves to lure companies with ever-more-lavish inducements, courtesy of their taxpayers.

Which brings us to Litebox.

Amid great hoopla, Mayor Ballard and Governor Daniels announced the award of major incentives to Litebox, a company promising to create 1200 new jobs. Its sole proprietor was man who not only turned out to have no history of entrepreneurial or business success, but who also has multiple unpaid tax liens and judgments against him in several states.

The story makes vividly clear how slapdash the City’s vetting process has been, and how politically motivated the decision to announce this “job creation” success was. (Really, in the age of Google, this level of incompetence is incomprehensible.) But the story makes a bigger point, albeit implicitly, about the entire policy of cities “buying” jobs by offering financial incentives to companies that promise to move and/or expand.

The obvious arguments against such efforts are familiar: it puts government in the position of helping some businesses but not others, which troubles those of us who believe in real markets; and it is a zero-sum game overall, since the company that moves from Ohio to Indiana is not creating more jobs–it is simply moving them from one place to another.

But the Litebox fiasco points up another problem with these programs. Even if competent people are running them, they are unlikely to know enough about the technologies and economic realities of very different industries to make truly informed decisions. The same technological and cultural changes that increasingly challenge tech businesses and that make investment decisions risky even for savvy and highly knowledgeable experts, make it virtually impossible for government officials to accurately gauge the viability of tech business deals. (In this case, reporters quoted industry sources who pointed to “ridiculous” assumptions in the Litebox business plan, but in most cases, the miscalculations are more difficult to spot.)

As a recent Indianapolis Star article reported, citing several examples, even companies with sound performance histories and none of the obvious red flags that were ignored in the Litebox example routinely fail to deliver the jobs that are promised.

When you add in the inevitable politics involved–the temptations of cronyism, the huge pressures to score political points, to look like you are delivering on your campaign promises–it’s no wonder that the jobs frequently don’t materialize.

It’s long past time to re-examine these programs and the policy assumptions they’re built on. It was probably inevitable that the use of tax and other incentives would not be limited to truly depressed areas; I was among those who failed to appreciate that inevitability.

Here’s a truly radical suggestion: what if we took the tax dollars that are currently being siphoned off to these favored businesses and used them to create a city that people want to live in? What if we decided to compete not with handouts, but with a superior quality of life?

1 Comment

  1. “It was probably inevitable that the use of tax and other incentives would not be limited to truly depressed areas; I was among those who failed to appreciate that inevitability.”

    I missed it too. Sort of like I missed how privatization, which in theory makes a lot of sense, would be completely undermined by revolving doors, campaign contributions, and long term, monopoly contracts.

    I couldn’t agree more with the need to review these incentives. It is a dangerous thing when the government starts picking the winners and losers in the marketplace.

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