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Saturday, September 01, 2012

State by State

Let's begin with a riddle: what do Mississippi and New York have in common? Or Oregon and Florida? Or Louisiana and Maine? Or Massachusetts and Utah? In what category is Nevada tops in the nation, and North Dakota last? What key statistic appears to have no connection to the coming vote in the Presidential election?

The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is simple, and, to me, quite shocking: the unemployment rate. In the midst of one of our most bitter debates on business climates and the role of government, what kind of state you live in appears to have almost nothing to do with your chance of finding a job. Even more amazing, your local unemployment rate has very little to do with how your state is likely to vote in November.

Let's start with a basic statistic and a fundamental fact: our national unemployment rate, 8.3%, is extraordinarily high several years into a recovery--unprecedentedly so since the Great Depression, which was much worse. But that rate is very far from uniform across the country, and an unemployed worker's chances of finding a job are much, much better in certain places than others. The median state unemployment--that is, the figure for the state in the middle of the table--is 7.6%, indicating that unemployment is higher, on the whole, in more populated states than less populated ones. Five states have unemployment rates of 5.0% or less--a figure which, not too long ago, would have been regarded as acceptable. Four of them are quite rural--North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Vermont--and at least two of them, North Dakota (the nation's leader at 3.0%) and Oklahoma, are in the midst of energy booms. But politically, these states cover the entire perspective, from darkest red (Oklahoma) through purple (the Dakotas, certainly in state elections) to Vermont, probably the most liberal state in the country. And this pattern continues from one end of the table to the other. (The data I am using is here.)

The states with unemployment from 5.3 to 5.9% are somewhat more similar. They are Iowa, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Minnesota, and Virginia. Virginia is the most urbanized state that we have encountered so far, and one that includes a great many federal employees. It is also the first from the old Confederacy on the chart, and the last one we will see until no. 19, Texas. Four of them are definitely in play in this election and they are all relatively rural. But when we get into the six per cents, further anomalies emerge. Dark red Utah, with 6.0% unemployed, is virtually tied with Massachusetts, at 6.1%, the solid blue, once-industrial state with by far the lowest unemployment as we speak. Then come Kansas, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico and Delaware--two red and three blue. Twelve states have unemployment rates in the seven per cent range--still, let us remind ourselves, below the national average. They are Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, Arkansas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Idaho, Louisiana and Maine (the median states), Alaska, and Pennsylvania. I was very surprised that Maryland's rate is a full point higher than Virginia's, since I would have thought the federal government employed a larger proportion of its population, but so it is. This is a more urban group, all in all, than the states we have looked at earlier, and it doesn't include any dark blue states, but it's the most significant group electorally. The election will be decided in large part in Ohio and Pennsylvania and both of them have lower than average unemployment. In Ohio, that is largely because of the auto industry bailout that Mitt Romney opposed.

Moving into 8.0% or more--and in fact, nearly all these states are slightly above the national average--we find Indiana, Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, Connecticut, Washington, Oregon, Florida, the District of Columbia, and Illinois. Five of the first six are pretty solid red (Indiana is not going to vote for Obama again), five of the last six are reliably blue, and Florida, the biggest state in population we've run into so far, is very close. The nine percenters are perhaps the weirdest list of all, beginning with Mississippi and New York, tied at 9.1%, and continuing through Georgia, North and South Carolina, and New Jersey. New York, with one of the largest state governments in the country, has the same unemployment as Mississippi, with one of the smallest. Significantly, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the homes of the 1% from the financial industry, still have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and Chris Christie's much-touted budget cuts--including his rejection of a new Hudson River tunnel--do not seem to have done any good. Then, trailing the field, are California (10.7%), Rhode Island (10.8%), and Nevada (12.0%)--three states that on the surface appear to have very little in common.

If some one were to use this table to start a spreadsheet and add columns for per capita income, spending on education, per cent of population in prison, minority population, illegal immigrant population, state taxes as a percent of income, percentage of houses in foreclosure, and state employees per capita, I suspect that some striking patterns would emerge, and we might get some practical ideas about exactly what needs to be fixed in our economy. The table very obviously fails to support Republican campaign rhetoric: small-government, low tax states do NOT at the moment have higher employment, but neither, as a group, do the blue states on the two coasts. But I am most depressed, in an odd way, by the lack of correlation, except in a few key cases like Ohio, between unemployment and how people are going to vote. Cultural and, yes, racial factors and clearly more important determinants of presidential voting than the state of the local economy. States at every point in the table will divide fairly evenly in the coming election. I do think a Republican victory would do more harm to the economy than a Democratic one, but if you really want to know who has a clue about how to fix the economy, the answer, clearly, is: no one.


Ray C Neill said...

Your last line sums the present economic dilemma succinctly. However, to be fair, many of these problems have global roots and ultimately it is difficult to solve macro-economic imbalances with micro-economic solutions. We are in a downward spiral that appears to have its own timetable and course and the people we rely on for prudent judgement and advice often have diametrically opposing solutions. Confused voters will be electing their choice of a dog's breakfast. With unemployment so high (and I believe the figures are underestimating the real numbers) it is hardly the time for harsh, unchecked Ayn Randian capitalism. Although, despite being counter intuitive to me, it seems that tough economic times breed reactionary politics. Ray C Neill

peter forbes said...

Is there a website that contains up-to-date information of the type you mention?

"If some one were to use this table to start a spreadsheet and add columns for per capita income, spending on education, per cent of population in prison, minority population, illegal immigrant population, state taxes as a percent of income, percentage of houses in foreclosure, and state employees per capita, I suspect that some striking patterns would emerge..."

David Kaiser said...


You could find a lot at statistical abstract of the United States, and the rest by googling, I'm sure. Let me know if you do.

Bozon said...


While I sympathize with his views,
Mr Neill suspects that many of these problems he refers to in your essay have ' global
roots '.

That is exactly what many people in high places, in both parties, have long wanted everyone to believe....that globalization is itself a natural phenomenon and a natural cause, over which we never had any control.

Unfortunately, although globalization was not a clearly thought out process, neither was it one over which we had no control, or for which we have no responsibility.

all the best,

Unknown said...

David as usual gives us much to think about.

But I believe he is too easy on the Islamists.

The fact is that Muslim media is FILLED with the most savage anti-semitism and anti-Christian polemics. Egypt is one of the worst cases, and I do not mean just the net, I mean television. Any look at MEMRI will confirm this.

Yet while they pour out a continuous sewer of anti-semitic and anti-Christian material, an obscure youtube video sets off massive Muslim riots world wide.

It is just like the Rushdie affair in 1989 and the Mohammed cartoon affair of 2006. Christopher Hitchens called it the Khomeini Rules (and Paul Berman called it the Rushdie rules). To wit: not only do Muslims in majority-Muslim countries have the absolute right to suppress all criticism of Islam in those countries, but Muslims have the right to suppress all critiism of Islam ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET, including by violence.

This is not hypocrisy. It is something worse. Because infidels, the upholders of inferior religions have to expect savage criticism from their superiors. This is only right. But that the upholders of inferior religions can criticize the superior Word of God, his Messenger, or the upholders of superior religion now, THAT is an abomination that cannot be tolerated!

Hence the riots. "Colonialism" has little to do with this sort of triumphalism, David. The Europeans held most of the Middle East for one generation 75 years ago. (Of course, for the upholders of superior religion to be under the thumb of infidels even for a LITTLE while is an abomination.) This is not about colonialism; it is coming from within Islam itself, fueled by Saudi billions.

Is this all Muslims? No, no no--and especially not American Muslims, as far as I can see. But it is a rising tide within Islam itself.

Art Eckstein

David Kaiser said...

Art, good to hear from you. I think you inadvertently posted this comment on the wrong post--it was evidently intended for the most recent one. I will put the text of your comment and my reply there.