Guest Blog (Michael Lipsky): ALEC’s and Arthur Laffer’s worthless recommendations for prosperity in the states

Michael Lipsky is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. This post originally appeared on the Policy Shop blog.

For most of its history ALEC has operated in the background, but its influence recently drew the spotlight when its promotion of “Stand Your Ground” laws came to light in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  Faced with the potential of consumer boycotts, corporate sponsors such as McDonald’s and Pepsi withdrew their support.  Henceforth, the organization announced, it would concentrate on state economic policy.

State legislators who might look to the organization for leadership on economic policies should be wary of following ALEC’s lead in this arena.  A startlingly candid report, “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” just released by the Iowa Policy Project and the Washington-based Good Jobs First, shows that ALEC’s recommendations for producing economic growth in the states are essentially worthless.

This is a strong claim, but the researchers support their conclusion neatly by putting under the microscope the implicit predictions in the 2007 edition of Rich States, Poor States, the volume written by economist Arthur Laffer and the source of the ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index. 

In brief, the authors take ALEC’s 2007 ranking of states based upon the states’ adherence to its recommendations, and see whether the states that were predicted to prosper were doing so five years later.

None of ALEC’s predictors of economic growth—elimination or reduction of progressive taxation, reduced commitments to public services, tightening of social safety net programs, or reduced union influence—showed any relationship to economic prosperity.

In fact, if anything the ALEC formula for prosperity had an inverse relationship.  As the authors put it, states that were rated higher on ALEC’s Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007 “have actually been doing worse economically in the years since, while the less a state conformed with ALEC’s policies the better off it was.”  

Looking at median family income specifically: 

Once again, actual results are the opposite of the ALEC claim. The more a state’s policies mirrored the ALEC low-tax/regressive taxation/limited government agenda, the lower the median family income; this is true for every year from 2007 through 2011; Figure 5 below shows the results just for 2011. The relationship is not only negative each year, it also became worse over time: the better a state did on the ALEC Outlook Ranking, the more family income declined from 2007 to 2011. The correlation, -.30, is statistically significant. 

The authors of the report remind us that the only way to accelerate economic growth is to pursue policies that increase or maintain productivity, such as investing in roads, bridges and schools, and insuring an educated workforce and a healthy population.

One report can hardly be expected fully to turn back the simplistic analysis that ALEC has been promoting for understanding state economic development. But this one should provide a strong counter-weight to the notion that states can prosper by following the low road of tax cuts and limited support for the public sector.

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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