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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Welfare state resentment

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ezra Klein last spring posted a chart, originally from The Fourth Branch, showing states in which more federal dollars are spent than collected in red, and states in which more taxes are paid than federal dollars spent in blue:

and comparing this to a chart showing which states voted for Barak Obama and which for John McCain in 2008:

The first thing one notices about these charts is that states that got the best deal tended to vote for the candidate who said he wanted to cut federal spending, which should hurt the red states the most.  There are exceptions, such as Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas, but the correlation is strong.  Some of the states that went for Obama, such as Iowa, Ohio and Indiana, aren't exactly deep blue states, and could easily swing the other way in the next election.

Why is this the case?  Why do donor states vote for the welfare state, while the welfare states vote against it?

I'd say the the welfare states vote that way because they resent being dependent, and their elected officials don't cut the welfare state because the people they represent really do need the money.  The donor states tend to be on the coast, either Atlantic, Pacific or great lakes, and they are donor states because the average income is higher, resulting in more income taxes paid.  The welfare states tend to be rural, inland, and poorer.

One of the best reasons for locating a city in a particular place is because that place is a natural center of commerce.  A city with a good harbor tends to be such a place, because ships are a more efficient way to move a lot of stuff than even trains, while trucks are way behind.  Other means of transport tend to be built to such cities because they are already transportation centers, enforcing this trend.

I remember the first time I visited Spokane, wondering why they'd chosen to build a city right there, when there was no harbor.  Then I came to the rail yards, and saw that this was Spokane's equivalent to a harbor.

Commerce follows transport, and wealth follows commerce.  And commerce tends to attract people who belong to a culture that Max Weber described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The second thing I noticed about the maps is that most of the welfare states tend to have what Ruth Benedict called a "shame" culture, while most of the donor states have a "guilt" culture.  In a guilt culture, you are mainly defined by what you think of yourself.  One way to think about this is that this is a descendant of the New England Puritan culture, one of the offshoots of which is the Unitarian Church.  Unitarians don't need a church constantly reminding them to act morally, because they've got a Puritan in their head who makes them feel guilty when they don't.  I've had customers at my bookstore point out to me that they wouldn't have known if I'd acted unethically, to which I reply, "I'd know."  I spent my formative years in Maine and the state of Washington, and have lived most of my life in the latter.  I'm a guilt kind of guy.

The South was settled by people who were not so opposed to fun.  Paradoxically, that means they need a church that talks a lot about morals, and have a culture in which a sinner repents (think of Bill Clinton, and a long line of Southern politicians who have had lapses and confessed and asked forgiveness.)  You can have a little fun, but you need to come to Jesus and ask forgiveness, because what's important is what people think of you.  Inside, you may think you're a hell of a fellow, but if you have been publicly shamed, your honor is besmirched.  You must have your honor restored, either by gaining forgiveness or by fighting for your honor.  It's no coincidence that dueling was in the U.S. a Southern institution.  Andrew Jackson fought a duel to defend his honor.  Lincoln, challenged to a duel, is said to have replied that he would accept if his choice of weapons -- cow pies at two paces -- was adopted for the duel.

To the Yankee, the idea of fighting a duel was laughable.  To the Southern gentleman, it was a matter of life and death, because to live without honor was a kind of social death.

The modern-day version of this is a society in which the rich states tend to be those with a guilt culture, who feel they must do the right thing for those less fortunate, while the poorer states tend to be populated by people who worry that the people in the richer states may look down on them.  This is why conservatives tend to talk so much about "liberal elites," even though the wealthy are more likely to support conservative politicians.  If you live in a rural area, you are likely to be dependent of roads that could not be built and maintained with local taxes, crop subsidies that help keep the family farm alive, and a number of other subsidies that wealthier, more urban populations supply.

Each side thinks about this in terms of how they themselves would feel.  Urban "guilt culture" people feel that they should help the less fortunate, and should they fall on hard times would feel grateful rather than guilty for the help the received.  Rural, "shame culture" people need the help, but feel shamed by the need, and feel they must be looked down upon.

Vermont, a guilt culture state, is rural, and a net importer of federal money, yet votes as liberal as Connecticut, because the subsidy is what they would do if they were the rich ones in order to make them feel right about themselves.  Texas, an honor culture state, is wealthier than average, but does not vote like Connecticut.  In part this is because they don't have the guilt culture need to help those less fortunate in order to feel good about themselves, and in part it's because guilt and shame aren't just about the money.

The third thing I noticed about this chart is that the red states in both cases show a strong correlation with where slavery was legal before the Civil War.

As it happens, the state of Washington was a territory at the time, and slavery was not legal here.

Yankees tend to look back on the Civil War as ancient history, especially if they live in an area that wasn't a state at the time, but when I lived in Texas, I discovered that for many Southerners, that history is still very much alive.  I lived in one of the many counties named after a Confederate general.  The schools in that county were desegregated in the 1980s, not long before I got there.  However they may have felt about desegregation (and remember, the North had plenty of segregated school systems) having it imposed on them by the federal authorities shamed them.  Although many areas in the South saw the emergence of "white academies," private schools that did not have to integrate, usually associated with a church, I suspect that there was an element in the South of not so much opposing integration as feeling shamed by its imposition.

Those white academies, by the way, were dependent on their federal tax-exempt status for their economic survival.  Jimmy Carter, who knew exactly what was happening, felt the law should be enforced requiring that tax-exempt schools be integrated.  It's at that point that Southern churches began to be involved in politics.  In that case, I've have to say it was really about race, although there had to be some shame mixed in.

Yankees try to conceal their racism, and make others feel as guilty as they do about it.  Southerners have historically been more open about racism, and have responded to efforts to make them feel guilty by concluding that the persons doing this are trying to shame them.

The legacy of civil rights legislation has been to make Southerners more hostile to the federal government, but that alone doesn't explain why they keep opposing federal spending.  Donor states tend to have a culture in which guilt is assuaged by compassion, which in turn is mistaken for condescension, leading to shame, in welfare states.

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