TCS Daily

What's the Matter with Kansas? The Rise of the Aspirational Class

By Jerry Bowyer - July 14, 2005 12:00 AM

"I think that they should sell war bonds" said a caller from McKeesport, Pa. to the radio program I host. "Why?" I asked. "Because, then this war would be paid for by you rich Republicans."

Calls like that almost always come from the same kinds of people calling from the same kinds of places -- angry, white, middle-aged men from former steel towns. You know they type, they are the kind of people who throw around words like "plutocrat." To them Republicans wear top hats and monocles, kind of like the Monopoly Guy. Since I voted for George Bush, I must be a rich man.

I met another man of the same generation once as he was coming off the elevator. His daughter explained to him that I was a talk show host and an author and warned him that I was a conservative. "You must be rich then," he said. "No, I'm not rich, but I'm working on it." He seemed confused by my answer, but it turns out that my exchange with him pretty much captures what the data say is going on in America right now. Despite the claims of the angry left, the blue states are considerably wealthier than the red states. However, the red states have at least been keeping pace and are now starting to close the gap. It's not the rich states that voted for Bush; the rich states generally went for Kerry. It's the aspiring states that went for Bush.

Let's break it down:

The highest income states trend Democrat; the lowest income states trend Republican. Recently the Bureau of Economic analysis released two important reports: one revealed economic growth on a state-by-state basis; the other personal income. The top ten "Blue States," for example, earned a great deal more than the top ten "Red States" on average, as demonstrated in the chart below.



The gap between the two is considerable, even when looking beyond the top ten in each category. The blue states (19 in all, excluding Washington D.C.) had an average per capita income in 2004 of $35,584. The red states (31 total) came in much lower, with an average per capita income of $29,724.

It's not just economics, though. It's culture. Northeastern states (overrepresented among the high income blue states) represent the mind-set of old line economic institutions. Old money which once flowed out of former manufacturing giants now resides in tax-exempt foundations, universities, and the endowment funds of rapidly emptying prestige churches. Their decaying urban cores hive off a congressional district with every new census. Their geriatric political machines haven't been able to send one of their own to the White House since 1960 (and even then, he wasn't really one of their own anyway). All of this cries out the same sad word -- preservation! Think Kerry and you get the picture. Think Teddy Kennedy and the picture is even clearer.

On the other hand, among lower income states, we find that almost half of the 31 Red States (14, to be precise) had a lower per capita income in 2004 than every single one of the 19 Blue States.

Again, this is more than money. It's values. Think Wal-Mart, think military enlistment, think mega-church and you get the right picture. I'm talking about people who have less to lose than their blue state brethren and don't care much what the cultural establishment thinks of them.

The Left has come up with an explanation for why the data so poorly fit their theory -- false consciousness. Thomas Frank has advanced this theory in a book entitled What's the Matter with Kansas? The idea is that the reason all these middle-America types don't recognize that the Republican corporate elite are destroying their economic futures is that they have been manipulated by cultural wedge issues like gay marriage. In other words, Joe Lunch Bucket is about to have his job "outsourced" to Bangalore, but he votes Bush because someone terrifies him with pictures of men holding hands in California.

There's nothing wrong with Kansas, but there's a lot wrong with Mr. Frank, who doesn't seem to have bothered to look and see whether the Bush administration economic policies have been disastrous for Kansas, or for any other red state. They have not.


As you can see, Gross State Product in 2004 between the red states and blue states was nearly identical, coming in at 4.32% among the states that went for Kerry, and 4.14% among the states that went for Bush.

Overall national economic growth was quite strong and income growth was very strong. The economy was doing well and the President was reelected. Kansas was doing as well as everybody else. Iowa and Nevada were doing much better than everybody else.


Although the blue states are still considerably wealthier than the red states, the red states are currently trending upwards at a faster rate. Per Capita Personal Income in the first quarter of 2005 saw a 1.05% jump for the red states, which is more than three times the 0.29% increase for their blue counterparts.

If current trends continue we are going to witness the long-term migration of population share, congressional seats, jobs, and wealth from the northern and coastal territories to the central and southern ones. With the withering of the preservationist regions will come the withering of their institutions -- labor unions, prestige colleges, mainline churches, old media. With the flowering of the aspirational regions we will see the flowering of their institutions as well - smaller, less unionized business concerns, mega-churches and (yes, brace yourself) Wal-Mart.


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