CAMBRIDGE – The political fallout from Mitt Romney’s characterization of 47% of the American electorate as “victims” who are “dependent on government” and refuse to take “personal responsibility” for their lives demonstrates anew that cultural generalizations, particularly in politics, are usually dangerous. In fact, Romney appears to have categorized a large segment of his party’s own voters as supporters of President Barack Obama.
As a rule, one should judge people on their merits, not on the supposed attributes of the racial, socioeconomic, or geographic groups to which they belong. Yet statistical relationships sometimes are so strong that it is worth pondering their significance.
In the United States, a distinction is frequently drawn between citizens of “red states,” which usually vote for the Republican Party, and those of “blue states” – concentrated in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific coast – which usually vote for the Democratic Party.
The unspoken truth is that, compared to “blue-staters,” those who live in red states exhibit less responsibility, on average, in their personal behavior: they are less physically fit, less careful in their sexual behavior, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and others through smoking and drinking, and more likely to receive federal subsidies.
Statistical analysis shows that states where more residents suffer from obesity, often because they get less physical exercise and eat more junk food, tend to vote Republican. To illustrate, a mere 1% decrease in a state’s obesity on average is estimated to raise the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters from 1.00 to 1.07, easily enough to swing an election.
Similarly, states with high pregnancy rates among girls aged 15-17 tend to vote Republican. Again, the relationship is highly significant statistically. Evidently, people in New England, New York, and Hawaii, who more often vote Democratic, are not just slimmer, but are also less prone to engage in unprotected sex than those in the South and Republican-leaning Midwestern states. States with high rates of cigarette smoking also vote Republican, as do states with high rates of fatal accidents from drunk driving.
The average score of the five “reddest” states (Wyoming, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, and Alaska) is worse on each of six measures of irresponsibility than the average score of the five “bluest” (New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Hawaii): more obesity, smoking, chlamydia, teenage pregnancy, drunk-driving fatalities, and firearms assaults. In the latter three measures, the “reckless” share of the population is almost twice as high among the reddest states as it is among the bluest.
The states that score worst on these measures are also the states whose congressional representatives voted against Obama’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2010, though many of these unhealthy people free-ride on their fellow citizens when they show up uninsured in hospital emergency rooms. That political hypocrisy comes at a price: obese Americans incur medical costs that are 42% higher than those of normal-weight Americans.
Figure 1 combines all of these variables into a single measure of personal behavior, state by state, with citizens of states on the left-hand side behaving more irresponsibly. The vertical dimension shows the ratio of Democratic to Republican votes in the 2008 presidential election. The overall relationship, again, is statistically significant: those with the least responsible behavior are the most likely to vote Republican.
Policy wonks have long known that one gets similar results when looking at which states receive more federal subsidies: Despite all the rhetoric about “getting the government off our backs,” the red states receive the most federal transfers, with Alaska, Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, and the Dakotas topping the list. Democratic-leaning states – especially New York, New Jersey, California, and the New England states – are net contributors to the federal budget, and thus subsidize everyone else. Those who claim to be most fiscally conservative in fact tend to feed most voraciously at the public trough.
Blue-state residents, who tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than residents of red states, have refrained from suggesting that their red-states compatriots exhibit behavior that falls short of the conservative rhetoric of personal responsibility. It would be unseemly and perhaps “elitist” to point fingers at fellow Americans and imply that they are promiscuous, fat, gluttonous, lazy, uneducated, or that they are more prone to divorce, drunkeness, and gun-related deaths.
Fortunately, the conservative political scientist Charles Murray points out some of these statistics in his latest book, Coming Apart. Murray argues that those living in the “super-zip codes” – areas with high levels of income and education, such as Belmont, Massachusetts – have maintained the traditional American values of hard work and family values. Those who live elsewhere have shown “crashing” rates of industriousness and marriage.
Indeed, according to Murray, they leave the labor force, often falsely claiming disability. They “goof off,” “sleeping and watching television.” Those with jobs have reduced their working hours, while those living in the super-zip codes have increased theirs. The proportion of children born out of wedlock has skyrocketed for women who did not finish high school, to more than 60%, which is more than 12 times the rate among women who finish college. (Murray’s statistics are based on whites alone, to control for race.)
For Murray, however, the blame lies with those living in the super-zip codes: “The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.” So the problem is “an unwillingness on the part of any significant portion of the new upper class to preach what they practice.”
That is a stunning argument, especially coming from a conservative/libertarian. What about the millions of red-state Americans who have been preaching hard work, family values, self-reliance, and small government, while practicing the opposite? Surely this is the more objectionable stance. Yet, for red-state politicians, this hypocrisy has been a winning electoral strategy for three decades.
Figure 1: Personal Responsibility Index and Ratio of Democratic to Republican votes
(2008 presidential election) – click to enlarge