The Tides of Values
I wrote the following piece for publication in the closing months of 2004. As these things happen, it was never published, but never actually rejected. In the intervening months, I’ve periodically looked for it online — as if I’d posted it somewhere — so it seemed prudent to go ahead and do so now.
Whether or not “moral values” were the decisive factor in this year’s election, pervasive acceptance that they are the opposition’s domain seems to have stung some liberals deeply. The Democrats have long been marketed as the party for good deeds done by proxy. As University of Connecticut professor emeritus William D’Antonio phrased it, in his Boston Globe defense of “Massachusetts liberals,” “The money they have invested in their future is known more popularly as taxes.”
The moral heft that some public-dime philanthropists attribute to taxation has granted the flow of federal funds a central place in the dark fantasies into which such people have recently retreated in their wounded vanity. They are discovering the great flaw of a strategy that makes a social-investment advisor out of a republican democracy.
The blue states, those that voted for John Kerry, contribute more to the federal coffers, but that money disproportionately ends up in the red states, those that voted for George Bush. As long as the priorities of the former group defined the national agenda, however, this relationship hasn’t attracted much attention. Perhaps those liberals who noticed it thought the political leverage garnered through dependency was part of their investment.
But with the decisive reelection of a hated regime, coastal Democrats fear that the “segment of the country that pays for the federal government is now being governed by the people who don’t pay for the federal government.” The partisan who decried that state of affaires on The McLaughlin Group, Lawrence O’Donnell, believes that its continuation will generate “a serious discussion of secession over the next 20 years.”
Unfortunately for the budding rebels of the coasts, some of the evidence doesn’t quite fit their complaint. For example, it’s true that dense populations tend to vote in the Democrats’ favor; hence the idea that the blue/red gap means that the tax dollars of wealthy urbanites are being funneled to rustic fundamentalists. On the local county level, however, population correlates with federal expenditures. Consequently, expenditures also correlate with party affiliation. In fact, the distribution of those dollars appears to be the better predictor of Democrats’ success.
Consider New Jersey, to which the Tax Foundation attributes the “‘blessing’ of being the [top] state that gives far more than it receives.” Using 2003 data, the average Kerry county in New Jersey has 181% the population of the average Bush county, but it receives 211% the federal largesse, according to the Census Bureau. In a state that receives back only 57¢ per federal tax dollar collected, each resident of Kerry territory accounts for $5,917 in federal expenditures, while each resident of Bush country accounts for $5,086.
Suspicions of a similar situation in Illinois led the aptly named blogger Sensible Mom to hypothesize that red counties “are contributing more to and demanding less of the federal government than the blue counties.” And as it turns out, in her state, Kerry-voting counties include 53% of citizens but claim 60% of distributed federal dollars. That disparate distribution of the 73¢ that the state gets back per tax dollar translates into $6,011 for each blue county resident, compared with $4,526 for each red county resident.
Even in Mississippi, where Kerry counties are home to only 32% of the population, they claim 39% of federal expenditures. Per person, the blue sections of this red state take $8,082 from the national tax pool, while the red sections take only $6,675. As for New Mexico, which is opposite New Jersey on the Tax Foundation’s list, the $1.99 that the feds return for each tax dollar accumulates to $9,517 per Kerry county citizen and $8,773 per Bush county citizen. In this case, the difference would be much greater if it weren’t for almost $2 billion in non-defense procurement dollars pouring into Los Alamos county, which President Bush won with 52% of the vote.
The dramatic skew in Los Alamos raises an intriguing question: who actually gets the money? Lawrence O’Donnell claimed that “ninety percent of the red states are welfare client states of the federal government.” But the Los Alamos National Laboratory and its $2.2 billion budget (FY04) are managed by the University of California, the public higher education system of the nearest blue state.
Alternately, consider the locally focused federal charity of Section 8 housing. The nation’s two richest states, Connecticut and New Jersey, receive $126 and $106 per capita for Section 8, respectively. The nation’s two poorest states, Mississippi and Arkansas, receive $54 and $53 per capita. For the navy blue states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the numbers are $178 and $200. Obviously, housing is more expensive in the coastal states, but again: who gets the money? The needy may manage to put roofs over their heads — in homes that don’t necessarily vary qualitatively no matter the area’s political color. However, the cash goes into the bank accounts and investment portfolios of landlords and property owners.
Number-crunching aside, blue-state conservatives have reason to suspect that the tides of money aren’t their liberal neighbors’ most significant concern. Just as there are blue hands out for federal dollars in red states, there are voters in the blue states who aren’t interested in outsourcing good deeds and the provision of hope to politicians and bureaucrats. His second time on the presidential ballot, W. increased his percentage of votes in 48 states, after all. In fact, Karl Rove has noted that the Bush vote in Rhode Island increased at more than twice the national rate.
Potential secessionists might be surprised how many loyalists are in their midst. (Indeed, the more they rant, the more there will be.) Beneath the confusion of liberals’ clamorous dominance on their home turf, it might actually be the case that the people who really pay for the federal government are at last being governed by sympathizers from that distant land in which “moral values” are not merely a catch phrase to be spun.
Reader AuH2ORepublican corrected me regarding the number of states in which Bush increased his vote (see comments section). Honestly, I don’t recall my source for that statistic, but I’ve modified the text.