It’s really a shame that American policymakers are so allergic to evidence, because we have recently had a couple of natural experiments testing the GOP’s most fervent economic ideologies, and we could learn a lot from both of them.
Most people who follow the news are aware of Sam Brownback’s effort to make Kansas a shining example of economic growth to be achieved by drastic reductions in state taxes. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Eventually–after brutal cuts to public education, infrastructure and public services and no sign of the promised offsetting economic growth–more rational Republicans in the state legislature forced him to accept tax increases.
Fewer people are aware of an even more dramatic experiment in Colorado.
The story began with the 2008 recession; like many other municipalities, Colorado Springs was experiencing fiscal distress.
To fill a $28 million budget hole, Colorado Springs’ political leaders—who until that point might have been described by most voters as fiscal conservatives—proposed tripling property taxes. Nearly two-thirds of voters said no. In response, city officials (some would say almost petulantly) turned off one out of every three street lights. That’s when people started paying attention to a city that seemed to be conducting a real-time experiment in fiscal self-starvation. But that was just the prelude. The city wasn’t content simply to reject a tax increase. Voters wanted something genuinely different, so a little more than a year later, they elected a real estate entrepreneur as mayor who promised a radical break from politics as usual.
For a city, like the country at large, that was hurting economically, Steve Bach seemed like a man with an answer. What he promised sounded radically simple: Wasteful government is the root of the pain, and if you just run government like the best businesses, the pain will go away. Easy. Because he had never held office and because he actually had been a successful entrepreneur, people were inclined to believe he really could reinvent the way a city was governed.
Bach promised to transform city government, making it work for everyone without tax increases. (Sound familiar?) He promised to do away with the personal property tax for businesses and to reduce the time needed for developers to get permits. He promised that these and his other “businesslike” measures would promote job growth–he promised 6,000 new jobs a year. He sold himself as an outsider fighting the city’s “regulatory agency mind-set.”
“Sixty Minutes” and “This American Life” covered the election and the town’s new “business friendly” governance. We haven’t heard much from the media since then, and it turns out that a lot has changed. As Politico noted, “seven years after the experiment began, the verdict is in—and it’s not at all what its architects planned.”
It turned out that putting people who don’t understand government in charge of government isn’t a formula for success. The new mayor fired people who had institutional memory and governing expertise; deferred critical infrastructure maintenance, and quarreled with the City Council when its members had the nerve to act like a co-equal branch of government rather than as his subordinates. The promised job growth didn’t come. Chaos did.
The next election, Colorado Springs elected as mayor a man who had spent his entire professional life in government.
It’s still a conservative town. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 22 points in Colorado Springs’ El Paso County. But even with that “small-government mind-set,”
[T]hree times in his first two years as mayor, Suthers has gone to voters either proposing a new tax or asking to keep extra tax revenue. By overwhelming margins, he has now persuaded the supposedly anti-tax zealots of Colorado Springs to commit $250 million to new roads, $2 million to new park trails and as much as $12 million for new stormwater projects.
What has all this “wasteful” government spending done to economic growth? Some 16,000 jobs have been created in the past 24 months, and unemployment is at 2.7%.
Amazing as it may seem, running a government requires different skills than running a business–and fiscal prudence is not a synonym for low or no taxes.