I return to an old favorite topic of mine this week, government subsidies for business relocation, in my column at Forbes.com. An excerpt:
To see this clearer, lets take the example of Major League Baseball (MLB). We all know that cities and states have for years been massively subsidizing new baseball stadiums for billionaire team owners. Let’s for a minute say this never happened – that somehow, the mayors of the 50 largest cities got together in 1960 and made a no-stadium-subsidy pledge. Would baseball still exist? Sure! Teams like the Giants have proven that baseball can work financially in a private park, and baseball thrived for years with private parks. But would baseball be in the same cities? Well, without subsidies, baseball would likely be in the largest cities, like New York and LA and Chicago, which is exactly where they are now. The odd city here or there might be different, e.g. Tampa Bay might never have gotten a team, but that might in retrospect have been a good thing.
The net effect in baseball is the same as it is in every other industry: Relocation subsidies, when everyone is playing the game, do nothing to substantially affect the location of jobs and businesses, but rather just transfer taxpayer money to business owners and workers.
Apparently our state government has been in another subsidy bidding war over a plant relocation, and fortunately it lost. Why the state government pulls together Defcon 5 activity levels to bring 80 jobs to a town of 4 million is just beyond me. But beyond my usual problems with subsidizing business relocation, which haven't changed from this post way back when I talked about relocation subsidies in the context of the prisoner's dilemma, I have three issues specific to our state's efforts to attract solar manufacturers:
- I am constantly amazed at the strategic planning that says Arizona residents should pay more taxes to promote a solar manufacturing industry because, uh, we have a lot of sun. That's roughly as logical as saying an FM radio maker should manufacture in NY City because they have a lot of radio stations. I suppose you could argue it would reduce shipping costs to solar using areas, but I can't believe that shipping costs dominate since most of the panels we buy in this country originated in Japan or Germany.
- Companies and industries that seek subsidies are like hot money in the investment world. Even if you attract it today, they will jump next week to another location that offers them more. We see it in this case, as AZ bought Kyocera's presence at one facility but can't afford the price to get them to build this new facility.
- The state's approach defies all business strategy, and is making a typical novice investment approach. Specifically, they are chasing the hot industry. Everyone is bidding for solar plants, so the price goes way up. This is why we have bubbles in housing and Internet, because people all pile into the same investment like lemmings. If I were to run a government business relocation strategy (which I most certainly would never do) I would be focusing on boring stuff no one subsidizes. We offered nearly 100% property tax abatement plus investment tax credits and can't get a solar plant. Instead we should be up in business hostile states like CA and NY getting rubber stamp makers and garage door manufacturers. Surely we could get 70 jobs a lot cheaper.