This post originally ran on July 18, 2011.
Sunday I reposted a piece asking whether or not states are an anachronism. Today I’m reposting my original counterpoint piece that looks at areas where states play a role and do seem to legitimately represent communities of interest. Note that I replaced the Common Census maps with a Facebook Like map and updated the migration maps.
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.
Also, given the hyper-polarization between red and blue in the country, the systems of states lets us create something for everybody instead of fighting endless scorched earth, winner takes all battles at the federal level. Or has the potential to do so at least.
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.
The first map I want to put is up is a map of which teams have the most Facebook “Likes” in a given county:
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:
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.
First, here is Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus):
Note everyplace is like this of course, but a number of places do stick out as exhibiting a strong in-state bias.
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.