Saturday, October 20, 2012

Blue state delusion

The New Republic senior editor Jonathan Cohn has a recent piece entitled "Blue States are from Scandinavia, Red States are from Guatemala." In case the headline is too subtle, here's the basic thrust of his argument:
In the red states, government is cheaper, which means the people who live there pay lower taxes. But they also get a lot less in return. The unemployment checks run out more quickly and the schools generally aren’t as good. Assistance with health care, child care, and housing is skimpier, if it exists at all. The result of this divergence is that one half of the country looks more and more like Scandinavia, while the other increasingly resembles a social Darwinist’s paradise.
Cohn justifies such rhetoric by citing a few quality of life stats:
By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states. It’s impossible to prove that this is the direct result of government spending. But the correlation is hard to dismiss. The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. (The fifth is New Mexico, which has turned blue.) And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. 
The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways. A recent study by researchers at the American Institute for Physics evaluated how well-prepared high schoolers were for careers in math and science. Massachusetts was best, followed closely by Minnesota and New Jersey. Mississippi was worst, along with Louisiana and West Virginia. In fact, it is difficult to find any indicator of well-being in which red states consistently do better than blue states.
Lastly, he says it is incumbent upon progressives, as compassionate people, not to stand idly by while these red states inflict continued harm on their residents:
Reformers and progressives in the blue states have never been content to ignore what’s happening in other parts of the country. In the nineteenth century, this meant that an African American shouldn’t be a slave just because he lives in South Carolina rather than Vermont. In the twentieth century, it meant that an African American shouldn’t be dispatched to the back of the bus—or barred from entering the voting booth—because she called Birmingham, not Boston, home. The United States was one country, with one set of rights. No state or section had the right to take those away. 
...Advocates for the red-state approach to government invoke lofty principles: By resisting federal programs and defying federal laws, they say, they are standing up for liberty. These were the same arguments that the original red-staters made in the 1800s, before the Civil War, and in the 1900s, before the Civil Rights movement. Now, as then, the liberty the red states seek is the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer. That’s not something the rest of us should tolerate. This country has room for different approaches to policy. It doesn’t have room for different standards of human decency.
A few relatively minor points:
  • While Cohn characterizes New Hampshire -- the state with the country's lowest poverty rate -- as "blue," that is far from clear. While it voted Democratic in the last two presidential contests (including by a 1.3 percent margin in 2004) and features a Democratic governor, the state also elected a Republican senator in 2010 and Republicans dominate the state legislature by a 293-104 margin in the House of Representatives and a 19-5 margin the Senate. On policy grounds, meanwhile, a 2011 Mercatus Center report ranked New Hampshire #1 among all states for personal and economic freedom. A progressive dream the state is not.
  • At one point in the article, Cohn decries Texas for a government housing budget that is "a mere $5.5 million—a tiny fraction of what Massachusetts spends, even though Texas has almost four times as many people." Texas, meanwhile, has been ranked by one organization as having the most affordable housing in the country while Massachusetts was ranked by another group as the least affordable state in which to rent an apartment in 2003. Cohn apparently prefers to measure housing affordability by how much government spends than what the marketplace provides, which speaks volumes. 
  • The last two sentences in Cohn's piece are absurd and fairly contradictory. While he allows that states can have different approaches to policy, they apparently cannot violate his own personal standard of human decency. One is left to conclude that Cohn believes the only permissible variation in policy should be among various shades of progressivism.
Turning to Cohn's main point, the evidence he cites in support of his theory of blue state superiority is ridiculous. While acknowledging that his argument rests on little more than correlation, he nonetheless asserts that it is "hard to dismiss." Oh really?

Consider a footrace between two barefoot men. One is given a 10 pound weight to carry while the other is given a pair of running shoes. Now let us imagine that the man carrying the weight manages to win. Would anyone attribute his superior performance to the weight or the loss to the running shoes, even though they correlate? Of course not. Rather, we would say that the winner was a superior athlete and that the two runners were not of equal ability to begin with. In popular jargon we describe this as the difference between comparing apples-to-apples and apples-to-oranges.

So too it is with states. Vermont and New Hampshire are not Alabama and Mississippi for a host of reasons, not the least of which is demographics. Given that A) the poverty rate of black Americans is significantly higher than the national average (27.6 percent last year versus 15 percent for the country as a whole) and B) a significant percentage of the population of Alabama and Mississippi are black while Vermont and New Hampshire have tiny such populations (26 percent and 37 percent in the former versus roughly one percent in the latter two states), who in their right mind wouldn't expect a huge variation in poverty rates?

The same logic also applies to the other measures cited by Cohn. In light of the fact that blacks perform worse than other Americans with regard to infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy and obesity, it should be expected that states with a greater percentage of blacks will in turn have an inferior performance relative to other states on such measures. That's not controversial, it's just simple logic.

The impact of demographics is further confirmed when one considers that places with Democratic/progressive governance such as Washington DC (where Barack Obama won 93 percent of the vote) and New York City, with high minority percentages, also suffer from poverty rates of roughly 20 percent (similar to Mississippi). Whatever each city suffers from, it's not a shortage of caring leftists or government interventionism.

Furthermore, as Bruce Bartlett notes, poverty rate comparisons across states are flawed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is cost of living differences:
The poverty rate is not adjusted for differences in the geographical cost of living. Everyone knows that it costs more to live in big cities than in rural areas and it’s cheaper to live in some regions of the country than others. But the Census Bureau assumes that the poverty threshold is the same everywhere.
While incomes may be higher in blue states than red states, leaving more people above the poverty line in the former, the higher cost of living in those states can result in someone being worse off relative to a red state. This in turn may help explain another reality unaddressed by Cohn -- the fact that so many people are moving away from blue states in favor of red states. Citizens are voting with their feet, and it is not for more activist government.

As this map based on 2007 data shows, the states losing population to other states tend to be blue states in the Northeast, Upper Midwest and California. Red states losing population, meanwhile, are relatively few, and Louisiana and Mississippi are presumably at least partly explained by Hurricane Katrina. On a related note, The New York Times has pointed out that -- in something of a reverse of the Great Migration -- many blacks from New York are moving to the South. If, as Cohn says, red states are seeking "the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer" while the blue states offer models of compassion and  opportunity, how is such movement explained? An exercise in self-flagellation? Rank stupidity?

Jonathan Cohn attempts to tell a story in which progressive, big government states outperform their more right-wing cousins, demonstrating for all the see the superiority of the blue governance model. As with Rattner, Kristof and Krugman, he resorts to the use of misleading statistics and relying on mere correlation rather than actually bothering to prove a causal relationship. This is lazy, unconvincing and the mark of someone not terribly confident in their ideology. 

No comments: