Striking an Economic Strategy With Maslow’s Hammer
The great psychologist Abraham Maslow is famously quoted as saying: “When the only tool you have is a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Maslow gave us all too much credit. When we (NH) have a hammer and know how great it is, we not only treat everything as a nail, we actually perceive everything to be a nail. We (me included) develop a blindness to “non-nail” problems and creative problem solving takes a back seat to picking up that hammer and smashing the problem.
NH’s relatively low state and local tax burden, especially compared to other states in the Northeast, has and should continue to provide the state’s economy with significant competitive economic advantages. In an era where “talent” – skilled, well-educated individuals are the resource businesses are most in need of, our state’s fiscal structure has been a magnet for higher-skill, more highly-educated and more mobile individuals and families. So why does it currently not appear to be offering a competitive advantage (based on job growth and population migration data)? The question is whether our fiscal system will be enough of an advantage in today’s economy to assure the kind of growth and prosperity the state became accustomed to over much of the past several decades. Based on the screams of joy I heard last week, the answer for many in NH is a resounding yes. The news that Massachusetts’ Governor Patrick is proposing to raise income tax rates in that state has been greeted by many in New Hampshire as if the cloud that is NH’s slow job growth is about to be lifted. Once those new Massachusetts tax rates are enacted NH’s schools and students will perform better, our electricity prices will drop, our young people will choose to enroll in the newly affordable colleges in NH, and our communities will be safer, cleaner and offer more and better services at ever lower prices. For too many in our state, the future of NH’s economy is largely determined not by what we do as a state, but by the mistakes that other states make. I’m no Doc Rivers or Bill Belichick but I don’t think their game plan is ever solely predicated on the other team’s mistakes. Great states, like great teams, can succeed even when the other “team” is playing their best.
The monthly state job growth numbers for December, released late last week, continue a disappointing trend that should have NH businesses, policymakers, and citizens asking whether Maslow’s hammer is the only tool to use in shaping an economic strategy for NH’s future.
In the case of economic policy in NH, the “nail” is the high taxes which we have been pounding with our hammer for decades. For the most part, NH has successfully pounded that nail well below the surface. As the chart below shows, state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income in NH are well below the U.S. and neighboring state averages. Occasionally the nail it pops-up but is usually driven down. Note that while it did rise for a time during the recession, this was a result of a slow and declining income growth rather than a rise in taxes.
The problem is that our love of the “hammer’ as our primary economic tool appears to result in us using a longer and longer nail set in an effort to achieve the same levels of economic success as we have in the past. Governor Patrick’s proposal to raise Massachusetts’ tax rates may benefit NH, I hope it does, but if it increases the use of our hammer, to the exclusion of other tools, the benefits may be illusory. A low tax burden is a great asset but the skilled, well-educated, individuals that drive economic success for the most part (it is certainly not unanimous) also want the amenities and services that people free from want generally like to enjoy – things like good schools, civic, cultural, social, natural and recreational amenities. People want to pay as little as possible for these amenities for sure (and in many cases they expect them for free), but they want them nevertheless. I think NH’s advantage is really been about providing ‘value” as much as it is about providing just a low tax burden. As long as we can provide the services and amenities that people want, at a tax price lower than other places, we should be a magnet for the kind of individuals that will help our state thrive.
Our state’s hammer is and will continue to be a great tool, but not for every job, and not if it is used indiscriminately. Every increase in a tax or raising of a fee isn’t an end to the “NH advantage.” It wasn’t during the 1980’s or 1990’s when the state was growing remarkably even as taxes and fees with tinkered with (and even one or two major changes) by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The key is knowing the true economic consequences of changes to different fiscal policies, which ones really hurt or help the economy and which ones have little impact and by how much.
I like NH’s hammer and I have argued how it has been a great tool in helping us build a house that withstood the ill winds that blew through the Northeast region for decades. I hope NH’s basic fiscal structure doesn’t change. But we have become so comfortable wielding our hammer that in our casual over-reliance on it we may just be pounding on the thumbs of those who would live in the nice house with which it was built.