Blue-Red State Comparisons Can Be Misleading

Comparing one set of states against another does not necessarily tell us which policies are better.

Dark clouds gather in the sky over Austin, Texas, July 16, 2013
Dark clouds gather in the sky over Austin, Texas, July 16, 2013 (David Ingram)

Conservatives like to point to the economic success of “red” states in America to make the case for their policies, but Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, two political scientists, argue in The New York Times that it are actually the “blue” states which are doing well.

States that have reliably voted Republican in recent elections tend to have lower taxes and lighter regulations. Democratic states tend to tax more and spend more — on education, infrastructure and quality of life.

Hacker and Pierson compared the averages and found that the latter are substantially richer, even adjusting for differences in cost of living. People who live in blue states are better educated. Companies there do more research and produce more patents. Students score better on national tests.

Misleading aggregates

So how can rightwingers claim red states dominate?

One tactic is to rely on measures that are goosed by population growth, such as the overall size of a state’s economy or recent expansion in jobs.

“That’s like portraying India as a beacon of prosperity because it has one of the biggest economies in the world and creates millions of jobs annually,” write Hacker and Pierson.

“Economic performance is measured in the lives of individuals, not aggregates.”

But the same argument could be made against their state-by-state comparison.

Urban exceptions

Consider urban areas. Hacker and Pierson themselves mention Austin, Texas, a thriving “blue” enclave in the middle of deep-red Texas.

Other examples include Chicago and Detroit, two cities that have also been under Democratic control for decades but are doing far worse. They are now forced to cut back on the very investments in education, research and urban development that Hacker and Pierson argue help generate growth in the twenty-first century, because they spent too generously on pensions and public-sector health care in the twentieth.

Factor in the impact of federal policy and the picture becomes even murkier.

Historical gaps

Indeed, Hacker and Pierson argue that the federal government has played a huge role in narrowing historical gaps between different parts of the country.

The South has long been poorer than the rest of the United States. The Appalachian Mountain region has had lower incomes, lower life expectancy, higher crime rates and higher obesity rates for many decades. But thanks to federal transfers, these conservative, rural areas came close to reaching the same living standards of the liberal coastal regions by 1980. Then their paths diverged again.

Not one or the other

Clearly politics play a role. Hacker and Pierson blame a right-wing pursuit of economic growth that comes at the expense of other measures of prosperity, such as health and safety.

They’re right that tax cuts are not the solution to every problem and regulations often involve a tradeoff.

But that is why their conclusion is so dispiriting. They claim to have determined that “key drivers of growth are science, education and innovation, not low taxes, lax regulations or greater exploitation of natural resources” when their own research would seem to argue against picking one or the other.

In the end, Hacker and Pierson commit the same sin they accuse conservatives of: drawing simple conclusions from aggregate data.

They find that states that excel in education and science are richer, so they conclude that education and science unlock growth.

Obviously there is likely to be a connection, but things are rarely that simple in the real world.

It’s not like there are only two options for economic policy or that one policy will always generate the same result everywhere. The differences in wealth between nations, between states and between cities demonstrates as much.

We should learn from those differences, see which policies work, and where, rather than look for a one-size-fits-all.

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