Annie Lowrey writes
that the Texas economy really is pretty strong - growing twice as fast as the overall national economy, and generating 40 percent of the jobs created since the recession officially ended in 2009, despite having 8 percent of the national population. The governor of Texas, presidential candidate Rick Perry, deserves credit for none of this, however. Indeed, she argues, public policy is largely irrelevant to the state's economic strength. Perry can't take credit for rising prices for oil and natural gas, which have helped a state where energy remains one of the biggest industries. Nor did he have much to do with keeping in place the restrictions on over-leveraged home mortgages, put in place after the Savings and Loan wipeout of the 1980s. As a result, Texas never had the run up in home prices and subsequent real estate meltdown, which has debilitated other Sunbelt states, including Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada.
So far, so good. But then Lowrey asserts, "Texas' economy is growing because Texas is growing. Indeed,
the state's population has swelled more than 20 percent in the last decade, by 4.2 million people. And it has added residents faster than any other state since the recession started. In this case, supply creates its own demand. All those folks buy food,
pay rent, and drive cars, helping to support local businesses and create
Huh? The normal understanding of causal flow would be that places that have strong economies are attractive places to raise families and operate businesses. Lowrey contends that any old place where a lot of people start showing up acquires a strong economy by virtue of their presence. Michigan - the only state that had fewer residents in 2010 than in 2000 - had a strong enough economy, according to this logic, until people started leaving the state. Maybe they had lived through enough of its winters, or gave up on the Detroit Lions ever having a winning season. Whatever the motives, it was the declining numbers of people buying food, paying rent, and driving cars that harmed local businesses and destroyed jobs.
So the key, apparently, is to get people to come to your state, and then the economic problems will more or less solve themselves. Lowrey attributes the increasing numbers of Texans to a "growing economy, nice weather, great barbecue, and cheap real estate," none of which Gov. Perry had anything to do with. The mystery of people voting with their feet seems to track with a couple of other coincidences, however. According to the 2010 census
, the nation's population grew by 9.7 percent in the decade after 2000. Five states grew more than twice that fast: Texas, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. All five of them are "right to work" states, where private-sector unions are vestigial. Of the five states that had the slowest rates of population growth - Michigan, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Ohio, and New York - only Louisiana has a right-to-work law. Its population barely grew during the past decade because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - that is, unless you think the outflow of population from Louisiana caused the hurricane.
Here's another coincidence that has no cause-and-effect impact on the population shifts that ignite economic growth: In 2009, according to
the Tax Foundation, the burden of state and local taxes was, for the nation as a whole, 9.8 percent of per capita income. Of the five states with the lightest tax burden - Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming - only South Dakota's population grew more slowly than that of the nation as a whole. Of the five states with the highest state and local tax burdens - New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island - Connecticut had a population growth rate that was barely half the national rate, and the other four grew significantly more slowly.
The moral of the story is clear: States' populations grow and shrink for mysterious, idiosyncratic reasons. A strong economy results from, but does not cause, these population shifts. Since a vigorous economy does nothing to attract and retain residents, states are wasting their time trying to strengthen their economies through public policies like right-to-work laws and tax reductions. Since those policies have nothing to do with economic strength or population growth, states should go ahead and elect as many Democrats as possible, hoping the random variable of a growing population will just happen to favor a state pursuing high-tax, pro-union policies, and a booming economy will magically follow.