My latest for Learn Liberty looks at proposals for starting an equalization program to redistribute from rich to poor states in the U.S. and finds them wanting. Due to the audience for that blog, I kept that post nontechnical and brief. I’ll reproduce part of it here and then elaborate on some of the complexities and possible counterarguments.
[C]ritics of federalism point to one big disadvantage: federalism, they say, is unfair.
This criticism particularly applies to the fiscal aspect of federalism — that is, the ability of states to choose their own tax burdens and spending levels. The argument runs like this: states have different tax bases per citizen (some are richer than others), so richer states can tax their citizens at lower rates than poorer states, offer more benefits and better public services, or both. In this view, federalism is unfair because it helps the residents of rich states and hurts the residents of poor ones.
I will argue, by contrast, that fiscal federalism actually helps people living in poor states more than people living in rich states.
But there’s a more fundamental problem with the fairness argument for equalization: it ignores migration. Presumably, we care about the welfare of actual people, not the arbitrary geographic categories they live in. In a federal system in which people can easily move across state borders, migration accomplishes everything an equalization program might, without the negative side effects.
Think about a positive productivity shock, like the emergence of a new, highly profitable industry, which raises real wages in one state. Workers will move from other states to the state with the higher wages. The increase in the labor supply will return real wages to their normal level, at which point the migration flow will stop. Those who have moved have become better off, and even those who have remained in the initially poorer states are, at the end of the day, earning just as much as those in the initially richer state. Being able to pay a lower tax rate in a richer state will only accelerate this process — and ultimately eliminate the rich-state tax advantage.
[S]ome places are just more desirable to live in than others. These places will tend to have higher home prices and rents and lower wages. Think about it: if I take some of my compensation in the form of higher amenities, I’m willing to earn a lower real money wage. For this reason, nice places to live that don’t have a lot of industry, like New Mexico and Maine, have low real wages, while places that are less nice to live in but do have industry tend to have high real wages (see figure 1).
But New Mexico and Maine residents surely don’t deserve to be subsidized simply because they prefer to take their compensation in a nonpecuniary form, just as North Dakotans and Bay Staters don’t deserve to be taxed for choosing to live in unpleasant places where the market demands their labor.
Certainly, housing regulation is disrupting equalization through migration in the United States. An equalization program that specifically punished costly states and rewarded low-cost states might discourage excessive development restrictions and get migration flowing more freely again.
But housing regulation might end up being a self-correcting problem. As people flow from high-cost to low-cost areas, eventually the latter will enjoy more agglomeration economies that promote economic growth, and the high-cost areas will start to falter by comparison. By regulating housing so strictly, residents of coastal California, the Boston metro area, and elsewhere may be digging their own graves in the long run.
The argument I’m making here about how migration is a more effective equalizer than fiscal transfers makes some simplifications.
One simplification is that the major reasons why some states have higher per person incomes than others are exogenous productivity shocks and amenities (“desirability”). But there is another important reason: different places just tend to suit workers of different skill sets. If you have access to coal deposits and navigable rivers, you might have developed a steel industry and attracted manual laborers. If you have old, prestigious universities and a seaport, you might have developed high-tech export-oriented industries and attracted highly specialized workers. The latter sort of place will tend to have higher average wages, just because the average skill level of workers is higher.
So what changes about the argument if we relax this simplification and allow states to have different skill mixes? Very little. Yes, Massachusetts can have a lower tax rate than Mississippi because it has higher-skilled, higher-wage workers. But as a result, workers will tend to migrate to Massachusetts, driving pretax wages for Massachusetts workers below where they would be in Mississippi (adjusting for cost of living). Importantly, Massachusetts could still end up having much higher average wages than Mississippi, due to a higher ratio of high-skill to low-skill labor, but the posttax income of any particular worker will tend toward equality between the two states, leaving no benefit to moving from one place to the other. You can’t get around the fact that tax differences between jurisdictions will end up being incorporated into market wages and real estate values. (In real estate economics, this process is called “capitalization.”)
Now, what happens if we assume away labor migration? This is indeed an important change, and it may well make some sense once we talk about multinational federations like Canada. Anglophones might be willing to move to any one of the nine anglophone provinces, while Francophones are stuck in Quebec. Thus, a supporter of equalization could defend the program on the grounds that it is a legitimate way of preventing Francophones from being forced to migrate to anglophone areas or fall irretrievably behind the rest of the country economically.
Still, I wonder whether places like Montreal and Quebec City do not have very different economic profiles from, say, Chicoutimi or Trois Rivieres. There is ample room for labor migration within Quebec. If Quebec itself is large enough that some parts of the province tend to do well while other parts of the province do poorly, it may not need equalization to protect itself from economic shocks.
But let’s say it isn’t large enough. Let’s say there are economic shocks — like import competition, new technologies, and resource discoveries — that could cause Quebec either to race ahead of the rest of the country for 10 or even 20 years or fall behind for a similar length of time. Let’s say the Quebec economy is really volatile. If we don’t want Quebeckers moving out after every adverse shock (or Anglophones moving in when times are good?), an equalization program can help, right?
Possibly. But here’s another alternative: a rainy-day fund. If equalization is really supposed to be insurance against economic volatility, then don’t redistribute from rich to poor provinces, redistribute from rich to poor time periods. The provincial government itself could put away lots of money in cash or retire debt when times are good and take on debt or draw down cash when times are bad. Or if we think provincial governments aren’t competent and far-sighted enough to do this, we could have a program forcing provinces going through better-than-normal times for them to subsidize those going through worse-than-normal times, with the idea that each province comes out balanced over the long run. This insurance-type program might not have as bad incentive effects as equalization, not to mention the unfairness of subsidizing high-amenity places. Still, a publicly run insurance program for provincial budgets will likely create some moral hazard, a reluctance among provincial governments to take politically difficult steps to reduce economic volatility and therefore expected future payouts.
So there you have it. Instead of equalization programs, federal systems should facilitate equalization through migration, or when that is not possible, encourage rainy-day funds or possibly intertemporal insurance for regional budgets.