Good Jobs First (GJF) has a new in-depth report revealing how the most aggressively promoted and publicized measures of states’ “business climates” are nothing more than messaging tools “designed to promote a particular political agenda.”  According to the study’s co-author, PhD economist Peter Fisher, “When we scrutinized the business climate methodologies, we found profound and elementary errors. We found effects presented as causes. We found factors that have no empirically proven relationship to economic growth. And we found scores that ignore major differences among state tax systems.” Yet too often, such rankings are reported uncritically in the media and – worse – cited by lawmakers seeking to change policy. Of course, this is precisely the goal of the corporate-backed, ideologically driven organizations generating these simplistic reports.

Looking at indexes from the Tax Foundation, ALEC and other anti-tax groups, GJF finds that “the one consistent theme that the indexes harp on is regressive taxation, especially lower corporate income taxes, lower or flat or nonexistent personal income taxes, and no estate or inheritance taxes.”  While the biggest problem is that none of the indexes show any actual economic benefits from their policy prescriptions, GJF also spotlights a slew of methodological problems that in some cases border on comical:

The Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index is compiled by “stirring together no less than 118 features of the tax law and producing out of that stew a single, arbitrary index number.” Since the Tax Foundation index gets sidetracked into trivial issues like the number of income tax brackets and the tax rate on beer, it should come as little surprise that their ranking bears no resemblance to more careful measures of the actual level of taxes paid by businesses in each state. GJF concludes that “it is hard to imagine how the [Tax Foundation] could do much worse in terms of measuring the actual amount of taxes businesses pay in one state versus another.”

The index contained in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Rich States, Poor States report fails an even more fundamental test. After running a series of statistical models to examine how states that have enacted ALEC’s preferred policies have fared, GJF concludes that the index “fails to predict job creation, GDP growth, state and local revenue growth, or rising personal incomes.”

The Beacon Hill Institute’s State Competitiveness Report misses the purpose of these indexes entirely by assuming that things like the creation of new businesses and the existence of state government budget surpluses somehow cause economic growth—rather than being direct result of it. 

Finally, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council’s (SBEC) U.S. Business Policy Index has a somewhat more narrow focus: grading states based on policies that the SBEC thinks are important to entrepreneurship and small business development.  But GJF explains that “the authors apparently believe that there are in fact no government programs or policies that are supportable … State spending on infrastructure, the quality of the education system, small business development centers or entrepreneurship programs at public universities, technology transfer or business extension programs, business-university partnerships, small business incubators, state venture capital funding—none of these public activities is included in the [index].”  Unsurprisingly, then, GJF also finds that a state’s ranking on the SBEC index has no relation with how well it actually does in terms of variables like the prevalence of business startups and existence of fast-growing firms.

But while each index has its own problems, GJF also points out that when it comes to tax policy, there’s a much more fundamental flaw with what these organizations have tried to do:

State and local taxes are a very small share of business costs—less than two percent … State and local governments have a great deal of power to affect the other 98+ percent of companies’ cost structures, particularly in the education and skill levels of the workforce, the efficiency of infrastructure, and the quality of public services generally. … The business tax rankings examined here … are worse than meaningless – they distract policy makers from the most important responsibilities of the public sector and help to undermine the long run foundations of state economic growth and prosperity.

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