Blue States, Federal Transfers, Medicaid, Medicare, Megan McArdle, Mortgage Interest Deduction, Progressive Income Tax, Red States, Social Security, State and Local Tax Deduction, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act
I’ve heard the following assertion over and over: blue states are “doners” of federal tax revenue and red states are donees. In other words, states dominated by Democrats contribute more than they take from the federal budget, while Republican states take more than they contribute. But the facts are somewhat ambiguous. And to the extent that it is true, policies that would improve the net position of blue states would be very unpopular with the progressive Left. Furthermore, progressives expose their confusion regarding the ethics of sound governance by calling the red state opposition to an expansive federal government “hypocritical”.
The relative positions of red and blue states in terms of federal dollars is the topic of an excellent article by Megan McArdle, whom I haven’t featured on this blog for a while. Originally, the claim that blue states “gave” to red states via the federal budget was based on data from 2005, but a lot of fiscal water has passed under (and over) the bridge since then. Also, the original presentation used state totals of federal outlays minus revenues without accounting for differences in the size of state populations. Many blue states are relatively populous, so some the state rankings may shift when expressed on a per capita basis. McArdle reproduces a chart from a report by the New York State Comptroller using 2013 data:
“… deep-blue New Jersey is the biggest donor state. But red-blooded Wyoming is the next biggest, and North Dakota makes the list too. There is certainly a preponderance of blue states at that end of the spectrum, but it’s not a clear ‘Donor states are blue’ story. And if we match the 2013 data to the closest election (2012) we find that New Mexico, the biggest net recipient, went for Obama in 2012, as did Virginia, Maryland, Maine and Hawaii. What’s driving the net subsidies isn’t anything as simple as political identification.“
Wyoming and North Dakota contributed lots of federal revenue from taxes arising from the fracking boom.
McArdle goes on to consider policies that would reduce the flow of budget dollars to donee states:
“Most of the transfers do not come from ‘red state welfare’ like agricultural subsidies. They derive from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare, the maintenance of the national highway system, the purchase of goods and services for the federal government, and the operation of federal facilities and lands.
If blue state liberals consider this out of whack, what do they want to change?
- Do they want to move toward a flatter, less progressive federal tax code?
- Do they want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid?
- Do they want to return unemployment insurance and similar entitlement programs entirely to the states?
- Do they want to hand over the national parks to the states, or privatize them?
- Would they like to downsize the federal workforce?
- Should we redistribute military bases from red states to blue? (Those relocations might meaningfully alter the state electorate, making it easier for Republicans to get elected. …)“
Of course not! But like McArdle, I’m of the opinion that many of the policy changes on that list, or at least reforms of existing policies, are in order. Perhaps the allure of steeply progressive federal taxes has faded for blue state Democrats with the new reality of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The law restricts deductions for mortgage interest, a hit on those borrowing against high-end homes. It also limits deductions for state and local taxes, eliminating a federal tax subsidy to high-earners living in states with high taxes. State and local politicians who support high taxes will no longer receive a “discount”, courtesy of taxpayers in other states, on the natural political liability of high taxes.
The categorization of blue states and red states as federal donors and donees is not quite as unambiguous as most Leftists imagine. Be that as it may, the flows of revenue and spending between the federal government and states is a consequence of demographics, regional business environments, and many other factors, but most of all the set of policies promulgated over the years in Washington DC. An objective assessment of the federal government’s largess indicates that most of those policies are in need of drastic reform, yet statists resist, demand more, and act as if “red states rubes” should be grateful for the dysfunction and the federal cash it brings. To progressives, it is hypocritical to oppose an expansive federal government on this basis. The absurdity of that claim is self-evident, but such is the confused state of progressive discourse. Perhaps a better adjective for red state opposition to federal profligacy would be “principled”.