Gerrymandering our way into bad economic policies

A map of Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District.

Politicians create economic policy. Unfortunately, the political necessities of one-party rule, which limits the competition of ideas, is driving decisions. If we are to improve economic policy-making, we must eliminate the artificial factors creating so many of these one-party districts— chief among them, gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is hardly new. It goes back to 1812 in Massachusetts. Electoral districts were redrawn to benefit the party led by Gov. Elbridge Gerry. One of the districts resembled a salamander, and the opposition party and newspapers started calling it a gerrymander, after the governor. And so, a political tradition was born.

Pennsylvania’s State Senate, State House and congressional districts are classic examples of the abuses of gerrymandering. There are way too many instances when, if you win your party’s primary election, the general election becomes largely a formality. The districts are structured so one party has such a large advantage that the opposition can rarely succeed.

But this creates a huge problem: Primary turnout is minuscule and, typically only truly motivated voters participate. For example, in 2014, a non-presidential year, only 20 percent of those eligible bothered to cast ballots in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, despite a competitive campaign. For state offices, the turnout was even lower. And independents have no voice.

Consequently, politicians take positions that motivate people to vote, and that usually means appealing to the disaffected, not the centrist, voter.

In gerrymandered districts, the focus turns from building consensus to attracting those that form the “political base.”

As an economist, I find that this warped political process concerns me. To create good policy, competing economic interests must be balanced. Gerrymandering, by removing the need to compromise, adds to the balkanization of our politics, heightening political dysfunction.

The consequences of gerrymandering on economic policy-making in Pennsylvania are scary.  Really, does anyone believe that the strategy of no tax increases has benefited the state’s economy?  Actually, not even those that espouse the view believe it.

But it’s a political stand that has motivated the base, so they keep repeating it even when they vote for new taxes.

Consider the gasoline tax. Instead of simply raising the retail gasoline tax, the legislature raised the wholesale gasoline tax. Every member knew the cost would be passed on to the consumer, but they made believe it was the wholesalers that raised gasoline taxes, not the legislators.

Pennsylvania now has the highest gasoline tax in the nation, voted for and passed by legislators who claimed they were against raising taxes. Meanwhile, to pay for the budget already passed, many will not vote for a tax increase, because they don’t want to be accused of voting for raising taxes. Is that any way to run a government?

In Congress, we saw the same pandering to the base. Had any of the Obamacare repeal bills passed, poor, rural communities would have shouldered much of the loss of health coverage and hospitals would have failed.  Yet their representatives and senators felt safe voting for them because they had said they would repeal Obamacare.  Good politics, but bad economics.

And then there is Philadelphia, a cautionary tale of what happens when you have one-party government, even if it didn’t need gerrymandering to get that way.

In Philadelphia, if you get the Democratic Party’s nod, you get elected. Council members worry more about local political concerns than building the city. So economic development is locally driven, and special targeted taxes are passed.

Ominously, the state legislature’s failure to budget responsibly and the city’s actions on a variety of issues could hurt one of the biggest business-location decisions in decades. Amazon is deciding where to put its second headquarters. Philadelphia may be a long shot, but the city has reached the point where it is considered for these projects.

If you were a member of Amazon’s location committee and observed a state legislature so dysfunctional that it couldn’t fund a budget it had already passed, what would you think?

And if you saw a city that passed an industry-targeted tax to pay for critical needs (the beverage tax), would you wonder whether it might do the same to you if it ran into financial problems?

If you want a more centrist, consensus economic policy, you have to have a more centrist political body.  One way to do that is to end gerrymandering and draw districts blindly.

That may not solve all problems, but with more districts in which the divides are relatively balanced, a greater number of politicians will have to attract voters with different views, not just those with limited ones.

jnaroff@phillynews.com