Monday, July 18th, 2011

Why States Matter

This is the second part of my point-counterpoint series on the usefulness of states. You can read the “anti” state side at “Are States an Anachronism?.” Today we look at the opposite case.

There are a lot of reasons why, despite their obvious flaws, states continue to play a crucial role in our nation. The first is that in a huge, multi-regional, multi-polar country like the United States, we can’t effectively govern the entire place from a single city on the east coast (with perhaps administrative subdivisions), nor would we want to. Our federal system provides independent sovereignty for states that are part of the general principle of separation of powers in our system, one that provides a check and balance against excesses of various types in Washington. Cities and regions, no matter what their economic rationale, simply cannot play that role. It takes something like a state to be able to stand up to the federal government.

Also, whatever the dysfunctions of states, their problems arguably hold no candle to Washington. Plus with a large nation that’s largely homogeneous at a broad level culturally, with a single currency, few internal trade barriers, and unlimited freedom of movement, there is in effect market discipline between states. The fact that they can’t literally print money or borrow without end means they end up facing reality fiscally a lot sooner than Washington. This is why regardless of the party in power, when times get tough, state governments have to get serious and try to do something. Ok, at least in most places.

And some have argued that state policy does have a greater economic impact than I generally give them credit for. Joel Kotkin has looked at the economic role of states in his annual “Enterprising States” report for the US Chamber of Commerce.

And of course there is the idea that states are our “laboratories of democracy.” Perhaps states are often too heterogeneous in their needs to really function as government units. But if that’s true, then it’s doubly true for our nation as a whole. We clearly have to solve that problem at some level. States give us a smaller scale model of the station to find out what works and what doesn’t. They can serve as testbeds for new policy ideas. And they can be a sort of “farm system” for creating national leaders.

But one area I’d to explore in more detail is the notion that states don’t represent a community of interest. As Longworth has shown, many states don’t really hang together. But is that universally true? Or is there sometimes data that shows there may be more to states than we might think. Let’s look at a couple of interesting data points.

One chart I’d like to return to again is the Common Census maps of sports team fan allegiance. Here’s one for the NFL:

While a number of states are split among various teams, I find it curious how unified many states are fairly unified behind a single team. Consider Indiana (Colts), Michigan (Lions – except the UP), Tennessee (Titans), etc. Some of this is an artifact of geography. Some teams have large catchment areas that makes this is a slam dunk (e.g., Denver), but that’s not always the case. (Other states have multiple cities with teams, which cuts the other way of course). Now this isn’t perfectly seamless. The Northwest Indiana area, as befits a Chicago suburban region, cheers for the Bears. And it does have quite a few people. But it’s hard to argue there’s nothing to this state thing.

It’s a similar thing with the NBA. Look at the Midwest, where the state lines are much clearer than for the NFL.

Next we can look at some maps that have been floating around recently that were put together by an IBM team based on cell phone data from AT&T. They tried to map states base on patterns of county to county calling to determine which places talk and text to each other the most. Here’s the one for phone calls:

Some have highlighted states where there are clearly splits – Illinois and Wisconsin jump right now. But what I find interesting is how many aren’t really that split. Again, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan hang together. So does Texas. And if you look at places where two or more states seem to be joined together – say Alabama and Georgia, I’d say these also provide evidence for the relevancy of states. If there’s a community of interest that’s greater than an entire state, then obviously the state itself contains that same community.

Here’s the text messaging map, which shows some interesting changes. I find it interesting how greater Cleveland lines up with Pittsburgh in this one, versus Ohio in the other. But it still seems to reinforce the same model.

Lastly, let’s look at migration data. Based on where people move as reported from IRS tax return data, let’s look at where people move from and to with regards to a major county in a state. This is gross migration from 2000-2008, so it’s in and out migration together, shading those counties where there was any measurable migration under the IRS methodologies (generally more than 10 returns per year).

First, here is Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus):

Next, here is Marion County, Indiana (Indianapolis). This one is slightly different (I’m pulling canned graphics from previous posts) since in migration is in blue and out migration red. But it shows the same basic pattern.

The boundary between Indiana and Ohio doesn’t appear to be an entirely arbitrary line on a map, at least not today. It’s a sharp as a razor in dividing two communities. (You could argue it shouldn’t be, but that would have to be the topic of another post).

Note everyplace is like this of course. Here’s a migration map for Philadelphia County, which just so happens to also represent the city of Philadelphia, as a counter-example:

(By the way, if you like these maps, they were created by my Telestrian system, which I believe has simply the best and most usable information related to this migration data available anywhere).

While there are certainly no perfect places on these maps, and some states, like Illinois, certainly seem fractured, it looks to me like there’s at least some evidence that quite a few states actually hang together as communities after all. This means it should be much easier for their residents to make common cause among themselves than we might think.

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy, Strategic Planning

28 Responses to “Why States Matter”

  1. Curt Ailes says:

    Growing up only a half hour from the Ohio border, I feel like this is something that I can speak on from experience. There were a lot of differences between Indiana and Ohio. You went to Ohio to get things like beer or to see a show at a venue that sold beer but still allowed underage kids inside. There was a dramatic impact on even youngsters lives. Seeing it from Ohio’s point of view, what would their youngsters come to Indiana for? Cow tipping? They were able to get beer on Sundays. Able to see shows where bands would go, vs where they wouldnt (cincy vs indy).

    While this is only one small sliver of this argument, it was a big theme for my teenage and early 20’s. I wonder how big of an impact this has when we all grow older?

  2. Everett says:

    Aaron, the actual AT&T Texting map looks quite different; I think you grabbed the wrong file.

  3. Paul says:

    Dirk Brockmann at Northwestern University has done some interesting work in identifying communities based on movement of banknotes. Some of the maps he and colleagues have generated can be seen at:

    A major paper on the subject is at:

  4. Thanks, Everett. Fixed.

  5. John Morris says:

    It’s a bit of an exercise in futility to try to answer which came first-the social and business relationships or the state borders.

    Take the factor of professional or business licenses. My mom was a nurse and my girlfriend is a psychologist and for both moving out of state was made very hard by the need to get re licensed in another state. One can multiply this by every business restriction or license.

    I think borders have in far too many cases perverted our identity and more natural social relationships.

  6. Rail says:

    I’m wondering if the difference between calling and texting has a bit to do with age demographics. Young people are much more likely to text than older people.

  7. John S. says:

    Good question, Rail. The rise of the Internet/information age and the demise of area codes’ geographic significance as brought on through the rise of cell phones and the virtual elimination of long-distance calling could perhaps have much to do with the difference between the two charts from a generational perspective. For Boomers and GIers, area codes are what they’ve known for most of their lives. This is not so much the case for Gen X, however, and is definitely not the case for Gen Y in a time where area codes are now no more important than local exchanges.

    As far as states are concerned, if we were to maintain them in some form or another during the 21st century and beyond, their present forms at the very least need an overhaul. What rule is there that says a state-local government hybrid that functions as a true metro-regional government isn’t possible?

    We already have a basic template for this in the US in the form of the District of Columbia. With some obviously needed modifications such as home rule, federal level representation and boundaries that are truly representative of the actual metropolitan area (e.g. DC’s could easily be expanded to encompass Maryland and Northern Virgina), we would have a model that could be exported to the multi-county and multi-state Chicago area/MSA, for instance, the New York City/New Jersey MSA, Cleveland-Pittsburgh or any region that would benefit from a unified approach to governance.

    In other words, major metropolitan areas that transcend counties and states could receive a federal district designation that effectively carves them out of their states to more or less govern themselves. The original states might continue to survive, but as federal protectorates and the equivalent of growth boundaries for the new metro-states/federal districts.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    I believe that Colorado created new “counties” coterminus with the city limits for Denver and Broomfield. (Denver grew up at the edge of multiple counties.)

    I do not know if those city-counties have the right to expand further; the real issue with regional governance is that a healthy region will keep on growing and eventually outgrow the initial boundary.

    NYC, SFO, and Philadelphia are old examples of coterminus city/county government; NYC is the only example I know of that’s multi-county. Indianapolis tried in the late 1960’s (and got it wrong, IMO, by excluding police, fire, and schools originally). Every one of those metros has surged far beyond its original county boundaries and the core city-county is landlocked.

    On the other hand, Columbus, Ohio may have the formula: they control the water pipes (which are required for new subdivisions under state law) so their city map has often looked like a sprawled-out octopus as a result. They just manage growth by planned annexation of the growth areas without a state-level change in local governance.

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    @Rail, I was thinking the same, but also wondering if Gen Y people might text more to family/friends and talk more when it’s business since they’re likely doing business across the age spectrum.

  10. @John S, the problem with a federal designation is that you are a creature of the federal government. Thus you are at its mercy. States are independently sovereign in our system. True, federalism has declined significantly, but states are still able to do a variety of things independent of or even in direct opposition to what the federal government is doing.

    @Chris Barnett, Ohio also has favorable laws that force residents to agree to annexation if the city brings utilities. And counties can easily annex across county lines, something that is impossible or difficult elsewhere.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    I’d like to question the assumption that states do things better than the federal government. Congress doesn’t really hold a candle to the infamous corruption of Albany and Springfield, in which every civic improvement requires horse trading to make sure the power brokers stay happy, and each governor is more corrupt than the other. And quite often the states are still less corrupt than small local governments, where a small number of players can dominate everything, acting locally as totalitarian rulers. The concept of tinytown justice is not a wise, pleasant judgment.

    In both cases, it boils down to the replacement of ideology with personality. Occasionally there are contests about state taxes and spending, but the amounts of money in question are small. Even in very liberal states, Democrats don’t run on universal health care or increased education spending. The ideological questions are replaced by competition among the interest groups, even more so than on the federal level, and this breeds extraordinary levels of corruption.

    If you want to probe further, it’s a question of which powers are given to the states and which are given to the federal government. Although the states control a fair amount of spending in principle, in practice much of it is mandated by federal programs that there’s no realistic way out of, namely Medicaid and highways. Because control is shared, state leaders are effectively middle management, without much power over general philosophy. Tellingly, the two areas that local governments do have complete control of, education and law enforcement, are indeed subjects of ideological battles, and sometimes even lead to actual democratic debate over the best ways to run police and schools.

  12. MetroCard says:

    Interesting analysis. Perhaps you should do a separate post on the effect that state boundaries have on city identity.

    It would be fun if someone could mosaic all of these maps and create a composite “sphere of influence” map for metropolitan regions.

  13. John Morris says:

    OK, I think it’s pretty clear states as political entities are not going away.

    It might be good to shift the discussion more to why they shape so much of our social relations. Isn’t it possible and very desirable to try to build more dialog across state lines? Does everything have to start with government or be about government?

    One very interesting thing in the Midwest is the almost total absence of regional media. It seems very rare for ownership of papers in cities to collaborate or cross polinate any content. We have local content and then wire service stories.

    It would be interesting to look closely at this, but my guess is there is less regional media today than there was 20 years ago.

  14. John Morris says:

    One good example of my point was that the Midwest once had two pretty important art magazines based in and primarily covering the region-the Chicago based, New Art Examiner and Dialogue, once out of Ohio.

    One would think with the relative ease of the web, some type of regional project could develop.

  15. John Morris says:

    My guess here is that the fish rots at the head–In Chicago. If any city should have a self interest in being a regional capital and driving or at least sparking that dialog, it should be folks in Chicago.

  16. MetroCard says:

    That sphere of interest map is intriguing.

    Indy’s orbit appears to be three times the size of Louisville’s, despite only having 50% more people.

  17. John Morris says:

    Isn’t it sort of obvious since there are not many big cities near Indy?

    Also, mountains and rivers are a big factor–why is Pennsylvania split in half? Mountains.

  18. John, now you are talking Longworth’s language. He really laid out the case for Midwest media (esp a Midwest newspaper, probably online) in “Caught in the Middle.”

    I think the bloggers are in the vanguard here. My own blog, though I now consider it a national blog, was at its roots a regional blog site – and I think the extensive regional attention it has attracted validates that model. Rust Wire is also doing great work for a segment of the Midwest. There seems to be quite a bit of cross-pollination between Midwest urbanist blogs as well.

    Unfortunately, the folks who have the ability to leverage significant VC or foundation funding are traditional media types. The Chicago News Cooperative is a great example. They’ve racked up a good $2 million or so in grants. But their focus is narrowly scoped on Chicago and they are taking a traditional newspaperman approach. That’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, I think it’s quality journalism. But it’s not filling that regional need or otherwise going much beyond traditional reporting.

    I have a ton of ideas on how to build a regional web site model with real, quality content at low cost – in fact, I might write up a post on it. But I’m relocating and I don’t have the bizdev chops or connections to raise the funding to pull it off. But I agree this is a key need.

  19. MetroCard, some of it is just an artifact of geography. If you are more hemmed in by surrounding major metros, your catchment area will be smaller. Plus the state boundaries affect identification as I demonstrated in this post.

  20. Not surprisingly, I agree with the first posting, not the second. Don’t be mad. I wish my Cubs won half their games.

    Many of Aaron’s points in favor of states are well taken, e.g., that we can’t run a big country like the US from one city and need subordinate units of government, that states can be laboratories of government, that states are testbeds for new policy ideas. Some of this is aspirational more than real. But even if states fill this role, they don’t do it very well. States exist, sure. But by and large, they’re incompetent at the tasks assigned to them. More to the point, if states didn’t exist today, no one would ever invent them in their current shape.

    The federal system isn’t going to be repealed. We’re stuck with states. But given their incompetence, is there a way of delegating some of their jobs to cities or regions which are better placed to carry them out? This is the question I’m asking, and I see no answer here.

    Sorry, but the sports fandom argument is no argument. For a start. these maps are “highly inaccurate” (the words of the mapmaker, not me.) Second, these fan patterns follow state lines except where they don’t. Ohio splits between Browns and Bengels. Illinois splits between Cubs and Cards. All of new England roots for the Patriots — but hey, isn’t that a regional team, not a state one?

    Ditto for the phone/texting maps, which hold together in some places, not in others, don’t prove much except that these conversations take place within state lines except when they don’t.

    In #5 above, John Morris makes a great point — that states, just by existing, reinforce their hegemony through licensing and other means, blocking the formation of more natural and rational regions.

    Re a Midwest media: As you say, I once beat the drum for a Midwest newspaper, which I think was an old newspaperman’s natural tic. It’s not going to work. You’re right, that blogs have moved into this space — and the best operate either on an urban or regional basis, which is just about right.

  21. Curt Ailes says:

    Maybe something that is more annoying in nature is the case of Indianapolis. It is the state capital. It is the primary economic machine in the state. It is the center of all things innovative going on in this state. All of the state representatives come and visit. I would like to consider all of these reps educated people who are capable of seeing the forest for the trees. One would think that seeing this, Indy, as a major city surrounded by many towns, would be allowed to grow beyond the policies that are in place. Why don’t these reps allow such matters to transpire? Is it pride? Is it old fashioned opposition to change? In my mind, smart people should see these things and not stand in the way of progress when a geographic region CAN excel; and by extension the state as a whole.

  22. John Morris says:

    I think a good subject to look into is how strong state identification relates to and affects economic growth. Which I think was more Richard’s point.

    Yes, Texas has a strong border mentality but it is a very big state. Looking at the map, it does look like having a very strong “my state” mentality- (Michigan, Louisiana, Missouri) seems to correlate with having a low growth economy.

    Are people in NYC really that upset that the NY Giants and Jets play in New Jersey? That’s an adult way to look at things.

    Already there are a number of state websites that would provide a great model for a regional news site.

    One great one is the Texas State arts website called Glass Tire. Suppose we had a regional site that operated with a similar design?

    Given how tilted the playing field is by the very existence and power of state lines-state fairs, state arts funding, state universities, state professional and business licences-it is actually surprising that identification isn’t stronger.

  23. William says:

    “Yes, Texas has a strong border mentality but it is a very big state. Looking at the map, it does look like having a very strong “my state” mentality- (Michigan, Louisiana, Missouri) seems to correlate with having a low growth economy.”

    If you look at all the maps, including the links in the comments here, you will see that Missouri is in fact not that insular.

    There are effectively three states in one – “Illisouri,” “Kansasouri,” and the third which is harder to quantify (with a theorhetical metropolitan hub in Springfield) “Missoura.”

  24. John Morris says:

    Yes, it looks like I was wrong there.

  25. John Morris says:

    I know we are still far from this but I do think there is one very important reform that could actually happen long term.

    This would be to allow congressional districts to cross state lines. We already have the Senate which is meant to give each state a say-along with all the other considerable powers and implied 10th amendment rights.

    The House itself was designed with the intent of being a one person-one vote democratic chamber. I see no particular reason why congressional districts couldn’t cross state lines without drastically changing the Constitution.

    This is not very likely near term but it might come about through further cross border advocacy.

  26. Obviously, the NBA map is several years old, as it still has the Seattle Supersonics rather than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Most folks in Seattle hate the NBA these days…

  27. William says:

    There’s not exactly people walking up and down the street with Bulls gear on in St. Louis, either…maybe I’m wrong…

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