There Ain’t no Economics in Economic Impact Studies

Economic impact studies are everywhere.
Whether it’s to support a new highway project, special tax breaks for solar energy, the building of a civic center or sports complex, or to promote subsidies for Hollywood film producers, you can find an economic impact study, often touting how great the project will be for the state or local economy.
The formula is simple, predictable, and effective. A special interest group that stands to benefit from the project funds an economic impact study that purports to provide hard numbers on the number of jobs, the increase in wages, and the additional output that will be generated by the project or subsidy, and it will do this on an industry-by-industry basis. It makes grandiose claims about how much overall economic growth will be enhanced for the state or region generally. Once the report is completed, the special interest group that paid for the study will tout these results in press releases that will be picked up by the largely uncritical media establishment, ensuring that the political decision makers and others who determine the fate of the project receive political cover.
These studies all have several things in common. First, they typically use proprietary, off-the-shelf models with acronym names like IMPLAN (Impact Analysis for Planning), CUM (Capacity Utilization Model), or REMI (Regional Economic Model, Inc.). Rights to use the models are purchased by professional consulting firms who are hired by the interest groups to do the studies. Furthermore, seldom do those who actually perform the studies have formal training in economics. Instead, their expertise is in using one or more of the aforementioned proprietary models. And finally, all of these studies ignore basic principles of economics and, as a result, do not meaningfully measure what they claim to be measuring – the economic impact of the public policies and projects that they are assessing.

This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on May 29, 2017.

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