How Growth Can Impact Spending and Why Spending Doesn’t Necessarily Drive Growth

The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, has figured out how poor states can become rich states: simply put, they need only to increase taxes and spending. It recently publish a piece entitled “the Path to Prosperity is Blue” which suggested that the states that have maintained solid growth the last three decades largely owe that growth to high state government spending, and it suggested that the poor states follow that formula as well. 

The statistical derivation of this conclusion comes from the fact that the wealthiest states of the U.S. tend to be blue states, which have higher taxes and spending. By this logic, spending drives growth. 

While there is indeed a relationship between a state’s spending and its GDP, the causality is completely contrary to what the Times portrays. The reality is that states that become prosperous invariably spend more money. Some of that can represent more spending on public goods–Connecticut does seem to have better schools than Mississippi–but far more of it is simply captured by government interests. While California may have made have created a quality public university system in the 1950s and 1960s with its newfound wealth, the reason its taxes are so high today is because it has a ruinous public pension system it needs to finance. Their high spending isn’t doing its citizenry any good at all. 

New York City and California. two high tax regions, became prosperous in large part because they were (and remain) a hub for immigrants and ambitious, entrepreneurial Americans who helped create the industries that to this day drive the economies of each state. California’s defense and IT industry did benefit from public investment as well, of course, but it was investment from the federal government, and in each case it merely served as a catalyst for the development of industries that went far beyond the government’s initial investment. 

To tell Mississippi that it could become prosperous and pull its citizenry out of poverty if it only doubled taxes is an absurd notion that amounts to economic malpractice. What Mississippi has to do is figure out how to attract and retain talented individuals, which is easier said than done. Unfortunately, the Jacksons and Peorias of the world are not lures to the ambitious Indian engineer or Chinese IT professional, who’d rather take their chances in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, or anywhere else where the quality of life is good and jobs are plenty.

The lesson to take away from a comparison of the economic status of the fifty states is that economies of agglomeration is a vaguely-understood but critically important phenomenon, location matters, and that it is enormously difficult for states to pivot when their main industries falter. None of these can be said to be driven by government spending.