Courting Amazon: the ends don’t always justify the means

Incentive packages often include tax breaks on property, income or permit exemptions – and taxpayers pay the freight

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By Josef Filipowicz
and Steve Lafleur
Fraser Institute

Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to open a second North American headquarters has sparked a mad scramble by communities seeking a huge economic payoff. But some notes of caution need to be sounded.

The new Amazon headquarters are expected to house up to 50,000 “high-paying jobs” and add billions of dollars to the local economy it lands in.

The company has asked local and state (and, presumably, provincial) governments to submit proposals enticing it to locate there. Predictably, many have. Bidding cities include Austin, Denver, Atlanta, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Montreal, with mayors, governors, premiers and even federal ministers trying to make a case.

Josef Filipowicz

Of course, the prospect of drawing a company like Amazon is attractive to any policy-maker. However, they sometimes forget that the ends don’t always justify the means – there’s a right way and a wrong way to attract businesses.

Let’s start with the wrong way. There’s a long tradition in the United States, Canada and elsewhere for governments at all levels to woo large companies through various subsidies. Incentive packages often include tax breaks on property, income or exemptions from various permits. Consequently, the jobs such deals attract often cost taxpayers.

A recent example is the agreement signed between the State of Wisconsin and iPhone manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group. The deal was touted by state and White House officials alike. In hopes that the deal will generate 13,000 well-paying jobs and $10 billion in capital investment over time, Wisconsin is offering up to $3 billion in income and sales tax credits over 15 years – that equals just over $230,000 per job.

Such agreements often don’t generate the desired effects. Jurisdictions are often pitted against each other by companies seeking subsidies, diverting public funds from other priorities. These incentive packages also tend not to have much bearing on future economic growth. Recent work by U.S. economist Timothy Bartik finds that economic development incentives offered by state and local governments typically don’t have significant effects on gross domestic product (GDP) over time.

ontario housing foreign buyers
Steve Lafleur

These kinds of “megadeals” typically come at a high cost.

So what’s the right way to attract businesses to a city, province or state?

A simplified, across-the-board tax policy goes a long way in helping businesses large and small navigate the tax code, rather than a piecemeal approach involving sweetheart deals for some but not others. It’s shouldn’t be government’s job to pick winners and losers.

Governments can also reduce the regulatory burden on business. The more red tape – in approval processes, zoning codes and permits – faced by entrepreneurs means more resources allocated to regulatory compliance and less to growing their businesses. By streamlining or reducing regulation, government can help firms focus on what matters: creating jobs and growing the economy.

These moves may not be as politically attractive as public grandstanding. But in the long run, they attract business investment and jobs. They can also help even the playing field between small businesses and larger ones, as larger businesses are better resourced to navigate complex regulations. Rather than helping today’s corporate giants, why not encourage tomorrow’s?

The sheer scale of Amazon’s proposed second headquarters is impressive, as are the promised benefits to whichever community the retail giant moves into. It’s no wonder policy-makers across North America are scrambling to put together bids before the Oct. 19 deadline.

However, in this mad rush to land the “Olympics of the corporate world,” many may lose sight of how to generate long-term growth while fostering a favourable business climate for all enterprises, large and small, foreign or local.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to attract businesses. If Canadians and their policy-makers want the right way, they can start by simplifying taxes and cutting red tape.

Josef Filipowicz and Steve Lafleur are public policy analysts at the Fraser Institute.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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