In the New York Times, you can get away with admitting that red states are doing something right as long as you hide that claim under layers of distaste and blue triumphalism. In the NYT, Richard Florida grudgingly acknowledges that red states offer their residents lower costs of living and “a higher standard of living relative to housing costs.” But he is quick to add they can only do this by free-riding on superior blue state economies, and details all the other ways they are backward, ugly, and horrible:
In our increasingly competitive global economy, long-term prosperity turns on knowledge, education and innovation. The idea that the red states can enjoy the benefits provided by the blue states without helping to pay for them (and while poaching their industries with the promise of low taxes and regulations) is as irresponsible and destructive of our national future as it is hypocritical.
But that is exactly the mantra of the growing ranks of red state politicos.
For Florida and many other commentators, politics is simply about choosing between two flawed models: the red and the blue. However, that approach is in itself backward-looking, because both models are clearly inadequate today.Blue proponents often fall into self-caricature, wanting to stuff more and more money into failing systems and to keep piling inefficient and poorly thought-up regulations (Obamacare, anyone?) until vital systems become even more expensive and even less functional than before. And then at that point, the traditional blue model approach is to raise taxes yet again to pump more money into subsidies for the system even as it deteriorates. As Florida observes, the people who get hit are those trapped in low-wage jobs in the increasingly unequal rich states—who can’t, because of the high taxes and costs, live anywhere as well as ordinary people in red states still can.The radical redsters, on the other hand, simply want to cut, cut, cut, slashing and burning without much thought about the vital functions that—often crudely and poorly—some of the old systems perform. Meanwhile, both red and blue operate in an environment in which vested, entrenched interests systematically warp promising reform into something that will further entrench their own power and privilege. This is a way to get a political system that doesn’t work and that everybody hates—and each election becomes a vote against the idiots in office.In the 21st century we can do better, and at some point we will. That calls for better thinking from both parties. Red state types must start thinking hard about things like policy and governance, and blue state types must break free of longstanding assumptions about delivery models (public education, for example, is not the same thing as the teacher union lobby). It also means embracing the possibilities of information technology, which could make government leaner and less expensive. Public unions will hate it, but it will be good for the rest of us. The effectiveness of our legal, medical, and educational systems could also significantly improve even as these vital services become more affordable. None of this is easy. We have to invent a new kind of America that will go beyond red and blue, though hopefully while preserving much of the best of both.But even as we look at the shift from the blue-red dichotomy to whatever comes next, there’s another undercurrent in American politics that needs to be remembered: regionalism. Historically, as Florida notes, the blue states have been much wealthier than the red states. In the 100 years after the Civil War they were home to manufacturing, banking, the great industries, and so on. Up until the New Deal, when canny Southern legislatures finally figured out how to get rich Yankees to pay for huge public investments in Dixie, federal trade policy and a host of other policies promoted the wealth of the Civil War winners.Since World War II, the South and the West have been catching up. To be sure, they still lag far behind in terms of wealth, university endowments, and other signs of wealth that come with a long period at the top. But because they have been poor and hungry, they have scrambled. Like industrializing third world countries, they took the low wage jobs that the North disdained and the ugly and dirty factories that the North didn’t want. Their governments kept taxes and wages as low as possible to overcome their historical backwardness.Because this strategy has worked, these regions now face a different kind of question. The natural tendency would have been to go on and become southern versions of Massachusetts and New York, with the kinds of extremely expensive governance Florida talks about. But just as they are acquiring more wealth, they are facing intensified global competition for wages, industries, and jobs. The South and much of the West need to mature, but they can’t do it the way New York and Ohio did 70 years ago. As long as the money holds out in the wealthy old states like New York—and there’s a lot of money in those states—they can afford to change slowly, if at all. They can afford the high costs of conserving the blue model in a less and less favorable world.But rising states can’t adopt that approach. The era of the blue model welfare state is past. China, similarly, isn’t going to be able to become the Sweden of Asia as it grows. The old ways just don’t work. More quickly in the red states, more slowly in the blue, America is coming to terms with a new kind of future. Nobody should be so smug as to think he or she has all the answers; that’s not how real social change works. But for all the condescension in the pages of papers like the NYT, when they look out at the brash and poor red states and start, however slowly, to realize that they are are increasingly becoming better places for ordinary families to live, then change may be coming.That would be a good thing.