The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce–like most such entities–is concerned with the economic future of our city, and the region it inhabits. Recently, it engaged in a planning exercise–engaging a consultant to survey a wide variety of stakeholders and to analyze efforts of “peer cities” to see what strategies work.
Among the conclusions reached in this exercise was one I feel was particularly important, and I quote: “economic success wasn’t dictated by the most generous tax breaks. Prosperous regions focused on the bigger picture.”
Your immediate reaction to this insight–gained from “thousands” of survey results, no less–was probably something like “duh.” But that doesn’t make it any less important, doesn’t lessen the impact. Bear with me.
For at least the past quarter-century, Americans have been sold a bill of goods: if taxes are kept sufficiently low, all will be well. Nothing else really matters. That’s all it takes.
Are your parks overrun with dandelions and weeds? Are you closing libraries? Do you have too few police to patrol dangerous neighborhoods? Does the paving on your streets look like battle zones in Syria? Do you lack decent public transportation? Are teachers decamping for places that support public education?
Not a problem! Our taxes are low!
The Chamber’s strategic plan discloses the utter cluelessness of this mantra.
Think about it: if you were getting ready to move (for example, if–God forbid–Donald Trump won the Presidency and you were frantic to leave the good old USA) where would you choose to go? Would you choose a third-world country with expensive healthcare, iffy public safety, no reliable public transportation, decaying infrastructure and low taxes? Or would you choose a low-crime country with excellent national healthcare, great infrastructure (both digital and physical), superior education, and higher taxes?
Here’s the deal: the existence of a superior infrastructure–roads, bridges, electrical grid, wifi, public education, public transportation, etc.–saves citizens a lot of money. Good public safety and a robust safety net provide citizens with a sense of security that adds immeasurably to social stability.
I don’t know how to “monetize” the value of public parks, libraries, museums and similar amenities, but not knowing how to value them is not the same thing as saying they have no value.
The question isn’t: how much are we paying in taxes? The tax question is: are we getting our money’s worth?
Like the Chamber, we need to look to see who is moving where….and not just what the inhabitants of those cities are paying in taxes, but what they are getting for their money.