Life is still better in Red States

In a sure sign that the media is running out of things to talk about after the holiday lull, the New York Times opens the doors of their op-ed pages to Richard Florida for a meandering analysis of why life in America’s Red States can’t possibly be all it’s cracked up to be. This is one of the more remarkably tone deaf pieces I’ve seen in a while, even on the pages of the Gray Lady. Here’s just one example of why it’s supposedly not that great to live in Red State America.

Red state economies based on energy extraction, agriculture and suburban sprawl may have lower wages, higher poverty rates and lower levels of education on average than those of blue states — but their residents also benefit from much lower costs of living. For a middle-class person , the American dream of a big house with a backyard and a couple of cars is much more achievable in low-tax Arizona than in deep-blue Massachusetts. As Jed Kolko, chief economist of Trulia, recently noted, housing costs almost twice as much in deep-blue markets ($227 per square foot) than in red markets ($119).

Driven by oil, the fracking boom and exurban sprawl, many of the red state economies are experiencing a vigorous (if ultimately unsustainable) spurt of growth. Thanks to loose land-use regulations and low labor costs, detached, single-family homes can be churned out quite cheaply, generating more middle-wage, low-skill jobs. And since red states spend less per capita on education, infrastructure and social welfare than their blue state counterparts (and many of them receive more federal dollars than they contribute), their tax burdens are lower, too.

If that’s the best argument you can come up with in opposition to living in Red States, we should all be packing our bags this morning to move to North Dakota. But come to think of it, the number of people doing precisely that might be one of the best measurements to consider if we’re to approach this question fairly. Over at the appropriately named Red State, our colleague Moe Lane makes precisely this argument.

You know what the single most entertaining part of this NYT article … is? It’s that nowhere in it is it acknowledged that people have been voting with their feet for the last two decades or so. Depending on how you score Florida and Nevada, blue states lost between 8 and 11 net Electoral votes* (and, hence, seats) in the last Census – and everybody really expects that trend to continue. For all the NYT’s worship of the blue state model that will pioneer “the new economic order that will determine our future — one that turns on innovation and knowledge rather than the raw production of goods,” it remains true that the only Blue State that is somehow still making the model work for it on a demographic level is Washington State**.

For proof of what Moe is talking about, the editors of the New York Times really need look no further than out the window of their offices. Up until the 1950 census, the Empire State had 45 seats in Congress and was the unquestioned powerhouse in Washington. By the time of the 1990 census that number had dropped to 32. It’s now sitting at 27, and given the growth surge that Florida has been experiencing it’s going to drop again five years from now. The other states which are ascendent share some uniform traits, such as lower taxes, lower costs of living and more jobs. This isn’t rocket science. Given the option of living in a place where one can not only afford to buy a home, but can also find a job to allow them to make the mortgage payments, the choice is fairly easy and the current data speaks for the result.

But it’s also worth remembering that breaking the country down by the borders of the 48 contiguous states results in far too crude of a cut. Most of the individual states have their own subdivisions with some rather stark contrasts. Returning to the example of New York, most of the money and political power (along with the crime and other plagues of city life) are centered in the Big Apple. But to the north and west are vast expanses where the cost of living is far lower and things are more peaceful and friendly. In fact, if the state government weren’t doing its best to drive away jobs – such as the firearms industry – and prevent the creation of new ones with policies such as the fracking ban, it could be a model for success. Down south in Tennessee you can find cities like Chattanooga where residents enjoy free high speed internet access, a thriving tourist trade, good schools and plentiful jobs. But driving less than an hour to the west puts you in what is essentially wilderness territory with a dearth of public services. Pennsylvania is a glaring case study in two massive urban centers (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) separated by a rural expanse known as Pennsyltucky.

Viewed in that light, the tapestry of the United States is considerably more complicated. It’s not so much an entirely liberal versus conservative scenario so much as a city life versus country life argument. The governing philosophy simply either mutes or amplifies those differences over a longer period of time.

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