(Scene: Vizzini and Inigo Montoya, atop a cliff.)
By DAVE HELLING
Vizzini: He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— The Princess Bride, 1987
Our friend Patrick Ishmael is up with a blog post on the Show-Me Institute website, providing figures that he says show “wealth” is leaving Missouri for other states.
“It’s frustrating to hear politicians with a penchant for false bravado act like this cash exodus isn’t happening,” he writes.
Like Vizzini, though, Patrick may be looking at figures that do not mean what he thinks they mean.
Jackson County, Mo., for example, lost almost $549 million in “wealth” to Johnson County, Kan., from 1992 to 2010. Ishmael hints at an explanation: Missouri’s government is too big, and its taxes are too high.
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the tax burden in Kansas from 1992 to 2010 was higher than in Missouri. The Brownback tax cuts didn’t take effect until this year.
Instead, look more closely at the figures: By far the bulk of the wealth leaving Jackson County over the period actually went to other counties in Missouri.
Put another way: $549 million went to Johnson County, Kan., but $841 million went to Cass, Clay, and Platte Counties in Missouri.
If the Kansas environment was superior, as Patrick suggests, why did that money stay in Missouri?
For that matter, why would the biggest movement of cash into Jackson County come from Wyandotte County in Kansas?
The same appears true in the St. Louis area. By far the greatest outflow of cash from St. Louis County — $2.4 billion — didn’t go to Florida, or Kansas, or Tennessee, or Texas, or Illinois, or any other of the low-tax havens.
It went into St. Charles County in Missouri.
And the biggest cash flow into St. Louis County came from St. Louis City — another example of Missouri money staying in Missouri.
Patrick isn’t looking at Missouri cash leaving for other states. He’s looking at cash leaving urban areas for the suburbs.
That phenomenon is hardly news.
It looks slightly different in Missouri because both of its urban centers sit on borders with other states. Some out-migration from the city to the ‘burbs will look like a state-based migration because of that fact.
But the single biggest demographic trend of the last half-century has been the abandonment of cities for suburbs and exurbs (a trend that, interestingly, may be slowing down.)
People moved out of cities for lots of reasons: a lack of jobs, bad government, crumbling infrastructure.
But surely one of the most important motivators was the quality of public education, which dropped in cities like St. Louis and Kansas City.
And public education is the classic government program. Nothing really comes close on a statewide basis.
And one of the concerns about the Kansas tax cuts — in fact, the only real fear —is that reduced revenues will make it harder to pay for quality education.
There can be an important argument, of course, over whether education quality really depends on public spending. After all, Kansas City, Mo. schools received billions in taxpayer funds in the 1990s and 2000s and still slumped badly.
But if there is any relationship between school spending and state revenue, the quality of Kansas schools could be arguably in jeopardy if state revenue continues to slide.
The biggest opponents of HB 253 in Missouri appear to be suburban school officials, who — rightly or wrongly — fear a squeeze on their ability to provide a quality education.
And if the quality of suburban schools drops, the migration trends will almost certainly change. Parents move to where the schools are good, and leave when the schools are bad.
(The other reason people move? Retirement. That’s why Florida does so well, and why sunshine states grow their wealth: retirees are typically richer than school-aged parents. And they like warm weather.)
Tax policy seems a smaller concern. That’s what Ishmael’s figures show us.
So he has told us an important story, one worth discussing. But here, we can only echo Inigo Montoya: It does not mean what you think it means.