Michael Lewis 2003 book Moneyball popularized a new approach to assessing baseball players: Rather than focusing on overpriced big stars and their traditional statistics, smart baseball executives focus on runs, however they are produced.
Moneyball provides important lessons for local economies. For those economies, and the local institutional regimes that shape them, the games are won not by attracting the stars with the big statistics. The secret is to create, keep and efficiently use the runs of the local economy: dollars.
A local economy can grow and develop via two and only two means: retaining dollars that are already in the economy (at least as long as possible) and attracting new dollars from other economies.
Urban theorist Jane Jacobs identified import replacement as the key to local economic development. Every time a local economy imports a good, it sends dollars to another economy. Import replacement therefore entails replacing those imported goods with locally produced goods, keeping the dollars at home. This is admittedly more difficult in the modern global economy, but a dollar spent at a locally owned business mimics import replacement by slowing the dollars transit out of the local economy.
The other side of import replacement is export creation the local production of goods and services that are consumed elsewhere. While we often limit our understanding of exports to manufactured goods, those arent the only exports available. Tourism, higher education and unique and vibrant multi-use neighborhoods represent locally produced goods that can attract nonlocal dollars. Even a successful public school system, or public parks and open space, provides goods that attract the firms and families, and their exports and dollars, that develop a local economy.
But even when a local economy produces or attracts more dollars that it loses, it can still lose the development game if those dollars are not used efficiently. This is most obvious when we consider a specific example: the expenditure of local tax dollars for infrastructure, including roads, water, sewer and police and fire protection. These are necessary expenditures in any local economy, but they can be applied inefficiently, in a manner that hinders rather than promotes local economic development.
In June 2012, the Sonoran Institute released a study of property tax revenues across a variety of Western communities (the study is available www.sonoraninstitute.org/abouttown).
The study considered property-tax density. A tax-density approach implicitly takes into account the local governments costs and thus is a better measure of tax efficiency. Low tax-density uses might provide higher total tax revenues, but they also require higher infrastructure expenditures to accommodate the lower density. Higher tax-density uses generally require lower infrastructure costs, providing more tax revenue per public expenditure. For example, the Montana Power Building a century-old, redeveloped, mixed-use commercial building in downtown Billings provides 100 times the property tax revenue per acre as the Billings Costco, according to the study. The Montana Power Building requires a fraction of the infrastructure costs. This type of urban redevelopment also provides commercial and community amenities, many of them locally owned, that attract and keep dollars at limited public cost.
Developing a local economy is relatively simple: Attract more new dollars than you lose, and then make efficient use of those dollars. Taking advantage of existing infrastructure, focusing on local businesses that retain local dollars, and developing the amenities that create exports and attract new dollars these are not political or ideological arguments; they are simply wise choices for any local economy.
Jerrold Long, University of Idaho associate professor in environmental and land-use law. email@example.com