GOP Economic Policies Don’t Work Very Well At Any Level

Seems I wasn’t the only progressive writer determined to knock down the Great Myth of the Heroic GOP Governors this week. Paul Rosenberg gives his typically comprehensive treatment to that and related issues at Salon yesterday afternoon. And the particular argument to which I would draw your attention is Rosenberg’s marshaling of research evidence that Republican economic policies just don’t work at any level.

Not only are Democrats better for the national economy as a whole, they’re better for state-level economies, too. As far back as 2004, it’s been noted online that red states as a whole are takers of federal tax revenues, blue states are donors. Analyzing annual data from 2008 through 2014, red states consistently got more money than blue states, by anywhere from 36 percent to 73 percent. One result of this, naturally, is that red states can better afford to cut taxes, since they’re mooching off all the rest of us. And yet, blue states continue to do better, year after year, decade after decades.

One rough measure of this broad pattern was produced by David Wise, reported on the London School of Economics blog. Wise compared red, blue and purple states, based on presidential election votes since 1988, with special weighting for the two most recent elections. This ignores statehouse and state legislative control, which sometimes diverge, so it’s not perfect, but it does reflect dominant voter values and priorities. Wise combined rankings of dozens of indicators to produce two composite measures. First, he explains, “An Overall Economic Strength Index was based on each state’s performance for positive economic outputs in areas such as the following: per capita income, median household income, household net worth, the poverty rate, economic growth and jobs added over recent years, labor force participation, the human capital index, entrepreneurial activity, patents generated and manufacturing value-added.” Next, “A Social Cohesion/Dysfunction Index was designed to measure the quality of life and social cohesion in each of the states. This index included: life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, the human development index, and the rates of drunken driving deaths, violent crime, teen pregnancy, divorce, incarceration, child abuse, domestic violence deaths and drug deaths.”

The differences he found were dramatic. Comparing the average ranks in economic strength, compared to the midpoint, he found that blue states averaged 3.23 above average, purple states averaged 1.19 above average, and red states averaged 3.67 below average. Looking at the top and bottom, he wrote, “Out of the top ten ranked states for economic strength there were four blue states, three red and three purple. Out of the bottom ten ranked states there were one blue, eight red and one purple.”

The average ranks in social cohesion and dysfunction showed an even stronger difference: of blue states averaged 6.16 above the midpoint, purple states 0.52 above the midpoint, and red states averaged 5.03 below the midpoint. “Against this index, six blue states ranked in the top ten along with two red states and two purple states. No blue state scored in the bottom 10 on this index although two purple states and eight red states did.”

Rosenberg notes this data is limited by the fact that presidential elections are used to identify “red” and “blue” states, which doesn’t always tell you which party was actually in charge of state-level policy-making. And that points to my main problem with such findings: they take for granted the highly debatable proposition that state governments have a whole lot to do with short-term economic trends, which are generally produced by national policies and global forces.

Still, in the long run, Mississippi didn’t become Mississippi by accident. The state-level philosophy of economic development for which the GOP increasingly stands from sea to shining sea had about a 150-year test in the Deep South, and as I like to say, if it made any sense then Mississippi and Alabama would be the economic dynamos of the nation. Southern states that have emerged from the primordial ooze of post-Civil War and pre-Civil Rights regional stagnation have generally either abandoned (at least temporarily) the old Moonlight and Magnolias theory of achieving economic growth via groveling before “job-creators” and disinvesting in public assets; or have joined the topsy-turvy feast-and-famine world of polities that depend on extractive industries like oil and gas.

In any event, it’s important that progressives keep challenging the twin idea that conservative economic policies work, and that governors like Scott Walker are problem-solvers rather than destructive ideologues working in a slightly different environment than their Washington brethren.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.