Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Replay: Why States Matter

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:

While a number of states are split among various teams, there’s an amazing alignment of fan spheres of influence with state boundaries for many teams. Check out the Titans, Packers, Colts, and Falcons, for example. Some of this may be due to media markets, but I do think the state boundaries play a role. I grew up in far Southern Indiana along the Ohio River, which is the boundary with Kentucky. It’s definitely Colts country there and people are rabid about the team. In fact, one of my high school classmates and also a cousin have season tickets, which is pretty impressive considering it’s upwards of a two hour drive to the game. Yet cross the river into Louisville and the Colts seem to completely disappear.

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 2000-2011, 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). 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, 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.

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

13 Responses to “Replay: Why States Matter”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    It really depends on the region. I want to say that Indiana is special because of the dominance of Indianapolis, but it’s not exactly true, since we don’t see the same pattern in MSP-dominated Minnesota. (Ohio is very different from Indiana: Columbus’s sphere of influence is coterminous with the state – which is likely due to OSU and in-state tuition – but Cleveland and Cincinnati’s are not.)

    But honestly, if we were to redraw state lines today, and we didn’t try to do it using a completely de novo set of rules concerning size, then in most of the US, there would be small changes only. Indiana would lose the suburbs of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Louisville, but otherwise remain intact. Virginia would lose the DC suburbs and gain the North Carolina suburbs of Hampton Roads. Tennessee would gain the Memphis suburbs, and maybe possibly lose Chattanooga. Oregon and Washington would merge. California and Texas might well survive, rather than splitting based on metro area spheres of influence – both states have a strong state identity, and my guess is that if it were put to referendum they’d both survive intact. Florida would lose the Panhandle; I’m unsure whether it would also cleave and lose South Florida. The only Midwestern state that would be completely dismembered is Missouri – maybe, possibly Ohio, but I feel like it too would survive in a recognizable form.

    And then there’s the Northeast. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking how a nationwide network of useful intercity and regional rail (i.e. certainly not Amtrak’s current service levels) would look like. In Ohio, Florida, and South Carolina, you can actually come up with decent in-state plans. In the Northeast, basically the only way it can work is by treating everything from Portland to Quantico as if it’s a single state. States mean nothing: if you put a split to a referendum in New York, both Upstate and Downstate would vote for it, and I suspect something similar is true of Pennsylvania; Greater Providence spills over into Massachusetts; Connecticut is half in the New York sphere of influence and half outside it; Jersey exists as a coherent entity only in Jersey jokes made by people not from Jersey. You can’t even cleave away Upstate New York and the western two thirds of Pennsylvania: their metro areas, even Pittsburgh, have quite strong migration ties to New York or Philadelphia.

    Unlike in the Midwest or Texas or California, the Northeast does not have the same university-enforced state boundaries: in Massachusetts as far as I can tell there are more students at private universities than at public ones, and in New York the SUNY/CUNY distinction reinforces the state’s internal divisions rather than erasing it. K-12 education is done on the basis of very small school districts. Commuter rail routinely crosses state lines. Commute ties are based on natural obstacles rather than state lines: Rockland and Orange Counties have stronger commute ties across the state line, to Bergen and Hudson Counties, than across the river, to Westchester.

    In principle you can redraw the Northeast into a few states, anchored in metro areas, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore, Upstate, and Pittsburgh, but even that would look very different from current boundaries, and even then those six or so states would have stronger ties with one another than with other states.

    The only other region where I think state boundaries are completely meaningless is the Interior West. There, the problem is too many states with too few people. (However, the eastern border of the region is relatively coherent, particularly between Colorado and Kansas, as the boundary between farming and resource extraction.)

  2. Sam says:

    You seem to assume that state boundaries ought to represent a community of interests. On strand of political science has argued that diversity in populace is a good thing in order to force compromise and moderation on a polity. This is necessary to avoid extremes in policy making. Taking Illinois for example, the interests of Chicago are to some degree balanced by the interests of the downstate communities, when they disagree. If the Chicago metro-region were to form its own state, then the policy choices of that community would be given free reign. While people tend to focus on the positive aspects of this (‘We wouldn’t have down state holding us back anymore’), it would also mean that the negative aspects of Chicago’s policy choices would be unleashed (untrammeled union clout might be an example). So while states may contain diverse communities, this may be to their advantage.

  3. That sounds good, Sam, except that in Illinois the Chicago contingent basically runs the state. The rest of the state might prefer very different policies but is given short shrift. We see this throughout. At the federal level we have the Senate which uses a different apportionment mechanism, plus the presidency which is based on a winner takes all elector system. Both of these tend to produce divided government that requires different constituencies to work together to get things done. But one man, one vote has eliminated this at the state level, and we’ve seen the rise of single party supermajority government of both red and blue varieties that can essentially do what they want and trample over the minority.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    If emperor for a day, I would trade Da Region, maybe clear over to South Bend (Lake, Porter, LaPorte, and St. Joseph Counties), to Illinois for everything south and west of the Chicago Metro out to Rockford and Joliet. Ohio or Kentucky could have the Indiana suburbs/exurbs of Cincinnati (Ohio, Dearborn, Switzerland counties).

    Then I would carve out a separate “Ohio-like” state of 2-3 million with a bunch of medium and small cities in the middle of present-day Indiana, within the 15-20 county octagon defined by Lafayette, Kokomo, Muncie, Richmond, Greensburg, Columbus, Bloomington, and Greencastle.

    The result would be three states in place of two: Chicagoland, Illiana, and Harrison (the Central Indiana state named after Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis’ only president).

    Harrison would be a “purple” state with a good balance between metropolitan, small city, and rural interests and four big universities (IU, Purdue, Ball State, and IUPUI) and Butler. Indianapolis and its suburbs would clearly lead; a mono-polar Ohio-like state that combines Rust Belt with a Midwestern medley of logistics/transportation, life sciences, education.

    Illiana would be a mostly-rural “red” corn, cows, and soybeans state with the University of Illinois and really good highways, not entirely unlike Iowa.

    Chicagoland would be a world-class “blue” city-state with leading private universities (Northwestern, Chicago, Notre Dame), not entirely unlike Massachusetts.

  5. Harvey says:

    “Untrammeled union clout might be an example [in a Chicago-dominated state]”

    Buddy, I’d like to introduce you to the prison guards’ union and the Greek chorus of Republican politicians that sets about wailing whenever a downstate correctional or mental health facility is shuttered or pared back. There’s still some unionized manufacturing in the Illinois River valley. And I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess if anything there’s a higher per capita population of unionized civil servants (highway patrolmen, state and county workers, public school teachers, etc) downstate than in Chicagoland.

    You really think a binary state that pits downtown and mid-north Chicago, the North Shore and DuPage against the Northwest Side and the Southland would be better for unions than the current arrangement? Hell, Chicago’s supposed to be the Mecca of unionism and our mayor is gleefully taking a sledgehammer to their kneecaps every chance he gets.

  6. EJ says:


    What you suggest is something of a poli-sci idealism, that we can mix and match diverse and conflicting political interests within our existing 18th century political structures and get something of a functional melting pot in any instance, regardless of the mix or match that has occurred.

    I’d say our current “red state v. blue state” paradigm has laid waste to this idealism beyond any shadow of a doubt. It has certainly severely tested and far exceeded the limits of our current winner-take-all, single member district approach to representation in government, with one of the two major parties holding a virtual lock on representative majorities in many state and local governments at this time, while using any and all means possible to deny the other party and alternate parties their own voices at the table.

    As such, either our form and approach to governance needs a major overhaul, or we redefine our political boundaries and layers of government to provide better representation based upon organic local interests and needs. Probably both. What this looks like in practice is probably different for every state and region.

    I can’t meaningfully speak on Texas or California, but as a native Ohioan who has lived all over this state, you could split it five ways and each part would be all the better for it. I just don’t see how we hold together, or even should. Ohio State Football alone won’t do it.

    Here’s my take: Cincinnati would align with the South it has long held an affinity for, while the Cleveland-Akron-Canton-Youngstown region would most likely orient itself back toward the Northeast and renewed economic ties with Pittsburgh, Erie, and Buffalo. Toledo would join Detroit and perhaps also follow Cleveland et al. to form a broader economic alliance with other Great Lakes-regional cities. Southeast Ohio would be absorbed by West Virginia. Dayton probably follows Cincy, and Columbus losing its status as the center of political gravity in the state formerly known as Ohio probably gets pulled back into Cincy’s orbit.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    EJ, I stopped before dividing Ohio. I’d lump western PA with NE OH (Cleveburghstown) and like you hive off Appalachian OH to WV and Toledo could join Michigan.

    Cincinnati could just take itself and all its suburbs into Kentucky.

    I’d leave the remaining part, the shrunken Ohio, alongside the new central Indiana state. Dayton might benefit from being the second city instead of the fourth.

  8. David Holmes says:

    I find the Wisconsin-Illinois relationship interesting and somewhat surprising. The text message and phone maps show a strong connection – a continuous community extending along the western and southern shore of Lake Michigan. The Facebook football map shows a sharp boundary between Wisconsin and Illinois (and Green Bay and Chicago Bears fans) but if you go to the source article, you see that the fans of both teams are most likely to root for the other team, once their team is out of the playoffs. So even beneath the sharply defined football team affiliation line, there is and underlying interest and support crossing state lines.

    States may matter but is seems that regional interests still have no supportive political framework (such as one that would recognize the shared interests of the western shore of Lake Michigan – South Bend, Gary, Chicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay community.

  9. Alfonso says:

    @EJ: Is the notion that we can split off wherever short-term interests begin to diverge less of a poli-sci idealism? Sure, Chicago and not-Chicago could split off into different states, but that just kicks their conflict up to the inter-state level; and how is that supposed to reduce the number of inter-state conflicts, as opposed to setting a precedent of internecine polity sniping? In particular, choosing to turn economic politics into identity politics is a very dangerous precedent; and coupling that to some set of self-determination ideals is going to be Café Para Todos at best.

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Alfonso, I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that government realignment once every quarter-millennium is splitting off wherever short-term interests diverge.

    States matter in the US Federal system, as we have seen clearly in the adoption of (dare I bring it up) universal health coverage schemes.

    But research shows that metros matter too, and there is no nationally recognized “metro” structure. We essentially have one “city-state” in the US, and even DC’s boundaries set up interstate issues.

    EJ and I have both suggested a time-honored way of resetting the states…compromise. Make some ag/rural states, and some city-states, and some that are a mix. Sure, folks would quibble about whether this county line or that county line should be the eventual state line, but this is largely a fantasy exercise anyway.

    The founding fathers used the bicameral legislature to balance populous vs. lightly populated states, so that Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia would not dominate the original US. Today, some states with big metros end up dominated by exurban, small-city, and rural interests instead of balancing them. A shift to some dense (for North America) and some sparsely-settled states might restore some balance and the need to compromise to get stuff done.

  11. Alfonso says:

    So you’d be introducing a moratorium on realignment, too? If people get excited and start introducing new campaigns every year or so to realign or annex or what have you, the new amendment will say, “Nope! Only once a quarter millenium.”

    My own skepticism re: inter-state conflict derives from the spotty nature of inter-state dealings. Compacts and task forces abound, but they’re mostly sui generis (pending Congressional approval); I’m saying that you think you’re compromising by taking a state with a tyranny of an exurban majority and splitting it into two states, where the new one now has its own tyranny of its own majority; and maybe that balances things at the Federal level, thanks to the Senate; but what about the disputes that existed when they were both part of the same state? Because now that infighting about water rights or air rights or whatever is just regular fighting between two co-sovereign sister states.

    The assumption that reorganizing state lines for present economic conditions will produce a lasting compromise that everybody’s happy with seems pretty pipe-dreamy to me, is all, and I resent EJ’s assertion that the Getting Along In Present Borders philosophy is somehow even more pipe-dreamy than that. And to be honest, the “fantasy exercise” assertion doesn’t diminish the resentment, or convince me that there’s an actual, non-emotional ROI to these kinds of schemes.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    In multiple historical examples, drawing provincial lines to be less coherent and less cohesive was an explicit central government strategy to remove local challenges to its power. Revolutionary France replaced historical provinces with departments, splitting provinces that might have been big enough to mount a challenge and grouping together regions that didn’t identify with each other. Likewise, Imperial China redrew provincial lines multiple times, and at least once, it was deliberately geared to create provinces that included portions of both North China and South China in order to make them less cohesive.

  13. Avi says:

    …and King Solomon in the Bible created 12 administrative divisions that had no correspondence to the territories of the kingdom’s 12 tribes. (Kings I 4)

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