One Reason Obama Wants Another State Bailout

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I recently discussed why the additional federal subsidies for state and local government that President Obama is proposing as part of his “job plan” are a bad idea. A new study from two Harvard economists suggests that the president’s affinity for these subsidies might have something to do with the fact that the aid would be particularly helpful to states with more left-leaning legislators and strong public sector unions.

The study from Daniel J. Nadler and Sounman Hong (see here) found that states with stronger public sector unions and a higher proportion of left-leaning state legislators face higher borrowing costs:

We find that, all things being equal, states with weaker unions, weaker collective bargaining rights, and fewer left-leaning state legislators pay less in borrowing costs at similar levels of debt and similar levels of unexpected budget deficits than do states with stronger unions and more left-leaning legislators. More practically, these findings suggest that the strength of public sector unions has become among the most important factors in bond market perceptions of a state’s risk of financial collapse.

Why do these states face higher borrowing costs? Nadler and Hong explain:

These “political” factors might signify to the bond market whether a state government has the willingness and capacity to initiate needed fiscal adjustments and austerity measures during the state fiscal crises that followed the financial crisis, and thus might provide some information to market participants about the likeliness that a given state government will choose to default on its debt instead of making politically difficult or undesirable budget cuts. Similarly, public sector labor environment variables, such as union strength, might signify to market participants the degree of organized political opposition state lawmakers would have to overcome to implement such austerity measures.

In a corresponding Wall Street Journal op-ed, Nadler and Paul E. Peterson, director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, do a nice job of explaining why the separation of responsibility between the federal government and the states has been crucial to the country’s economic rise:

Federal rescue of states is a dramatic departure from past practice. State bankruptcies date back to the 1840s when, amid a financial crisis, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and five other states discovered they had invested too heavily in infrastructure. The last state bankruptcy was in Arkansas during the 1930s. But overall the instances were few; in each case the federal government refused to come up with a fix.

Bankrupt states paid the price, but for the country as a whole, a system of fiscally sovereign states has proven incredibly beneficial to the nation’s economic well-being. Every state is responsible for its own police, fire, schools, transport and much more, and most of the time they do reasonably well. If they manage their affairs so as to attract business, commerce and talented workers, states prosper. If states make a mess of things, citizens and businesses vote with their feet, marching off to a part of the country that works better.

It is this exceptional federalist system that helped drive the rapid growth of the American economy throughout the first two centuries of the country’s history. Because state and local governments competed with one another for venture capital, entrepreneurial talent and skilled workers, governments generally had to be attentive to the needs of both citizens and commerce.

Unfortunately, the 20th century’s trend for the federal government to subsidize and manage more and more state and local affairs has worsened in the last 10 years as the chart in my blog post shows. If our bloated federal government is ever to be reined in, a return to fiscal federalism is a must. And if the states are to get their financial houses in order, state policymakers can’t be allowed to believe that a federal policy of “too big to fail” applies to them. (See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.)