It Could Be Worse. Not Much Worse, but It Could Be Worse.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis recently released data on real GDP for all 50 states. Since Missouri’s growth in recent years has been nothing short of dismal—it was the 49th-fastest-growing state for the period 1997 through 2014—I thought it would be worthwhile to review the most up-to-date data for clues about what’s going wrong, and how it might be fixed.
The chart below plots the average annual growth rate for each of the 50 states and for the United States as whole for the period 1997 through 2015. The good news is that Missouri’s average annual growth rate increased from 0.93 percent when computed over the 1997 through 2014 period to 1.02 percent when computed over the 1997 through 2015 period. Missouri reported a 1.29 percent growth rate in its real GDP between 2014 and 2015. No one really jumps for joy when growth rates are reported at 1.3 percent for a year; however, Missouri did manage to stagger its way one rung up the ladder, from 49th-fastest to 48th-fastest growing state economy over the period from 1997 through 2015.
Overall, the story for Missouri is little changed compared to a year ago. Since the late 1990s, Missouri’s economy has increased at half the rate of that of the United States as a whole. Eighteen years is not a terribly long time, and we all hope that Missouri’s future will be brighter. But the question remains: Why has the Missouri economy reported such slow growth over the past eighteen years?
The answer is not simple. Note that the ten fastest growing states are: North Dakota, Texas, South Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho, Arizona, and Oklahoma. There is no one clear feature shared by these ten states that can account for their economic success. Some of them do have natural resources and have benefitted from being able to dig a hole in the ground and extract things that are valuable to the rest of the world. But that is not the only explanation. For example, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, and Utah (at least) do not fit the oil/natural gas story. Alternatively, the ten states with the lowest growth rates are Michigan, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, West Virginia, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and New Jersey. No single attribute these states might have in common would account for their struggles, either.
Income tax rates cannot, alone, explain the differences in growth rates. The nine states with no earned income taxes (followed by rankings) are: Alaska (40), Florida (20), Nevada (16), New Hampshire (25), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (30), Texas (2), Washington (13), and Wyoming (11). The nine states with the highest marginal income tax rates (followed by rankings) are: California (7), Hawaii (37), Oregon (4), Minnesota (17), Iowa (23), New Jersey (42), Vermont (26), New York (29), and Maine (46). The mean rank for the nine states with no income taxes is 17.8 while the mean rank for the nine states with the highest income tax rates is 25.7.
Overall, the evidence does not prove, but does suggest, that income tax rates do matter for economic growth. Of course, a host of other factors matter as well. In order to assess the role of income tax rates on growth, the ideal test would involve holding everything else constant. In other words, you would want to examine a parallel version of New Jersey, for example, but one with a lower income tax rate. Holding everything else constant, economic theory suggests that New Jersey would grow faster.
The broader message is that lots of factors that influence a state’s economic growth rate. Each state is an experiment in which tax rates, school quality, and various government services are provided endogenously by state policymakers. The bundle of policies and regulations is too large and complicated for us to identify how each one matters. And on top of the political attributes, there are the things that lie underground, or on the ground itself (or the ocean front—or lack thereof), that people living in each state can consume. All policymakers can do is to try and manage the factors they can influence in a way that will help their state grow faster.
In case you are wondering, Kansas ranked as the 29th-fastest-growing state over this period. So, why can’t Missouri grow at least as fast as its neighbor? It’s a frustrating question, because we have a Gordian knot of regulations, laws, and policies that make it difficult to determine specific causes of our stagnation. Not only have policymakers failed to move Missouri in the right direction in the 21st century, but the complexity of our state’s problems prevents us from understanding why various initiatives have failed to produce their intended results. In my view, it seems like a good time for Missouri to review its entire spectrum of policies. For instance, we have not had a constitutional convention in this state since 1947. Maybe it is time for an institutional overhaul.