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U.S. Economic Ills Are Cultural, Too

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.”
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The new hot topic is regional economic development, mostly because the victory of Donald Trump drew attention to lagging economic areas such as Appalachia and the Midwest. My Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith recently outlined some economic suggestions, and while I agree with many (not all) of his proposals, I would like to consider an alternative and more culturally oriented perspective.

The first noteworthy fact about this discussion is its recent flowering. No new information about these regions has come to light, except for the fact that they tilted the Electoral College toward Trump. That suggests we may be blurring two questions, with “How can we help these regions?” becoming a paternalistic “How can we get them to change their voting patterns?” Mississippi and Louisiana, two of America’s poorest states, haven’t gotten a comparable outburst of new attention, perhaps because they reliably vote Republican in presidential elections.

The second noteworthy fact is that most of these lagging regions are not actually so poor, at least not in material terms. Let’s consider poverty indices, adjusted to account for government benefits to individuals. For Maryland, which is not generally considered troubled, and which usually votes Democratic in presidential elections, the measured poverty rate is 14.3 percent. For the relatively well-governed and reliably blue state of Massachusetts, the poverty rate is 15.1 percent. And what might the poverty rate be for West Virginia? 14.8 percent. For Michigan, the rate is 12 percent and for Ohio 12.2 percent. The Appalachian and Rust Belt states definitely have economic problems, including a lack of advancing industries and highly productive firms, but in terms of poverty they do not stand out.

Arguably, the true malaise is largely cultural, resulting from a mix of mediocre outcomes relative to expectations, drug and alcohol abuse and dysfunctional white identity politics. To cite one striking fact, one West Virginia source reported, “In six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers.” That works out to about 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia. There are plenty of poorer regions in history, including the earlier West Virginia, without comparable levels of drug abuse.

Cultural problems are not usually well suited for top-down, designed solutions, but nonetheless two ideas come to mind, both of which involve a shift in the zeitgeist rather than planned policies.

The first is that the case for religions, in particular strict religions that proscribe substance use, may be stronger than we had thought. Although I am not myself religious, I find myself wishing for a religious flowering in more parts of the U.S., and I do mean actual adherence to the doctrine, not just lip service. Without substance abuse, and with lower rates of divorce, the social and economic problems of these regions would be less severe. In Utah, for instance, where an unusually high percentage of the population is Mormon, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and broken families are all much smaller problems. Utah also has a relatively robust middle class. Even with imperfect adherence, and for religions other than Mormonism, religion seems to boost social capital and individual outcomes.

I find America’s largely secular intellectual class oddly unwilling to spell out this simple case for more strict religion. For one thing, it doesn’t support the political (or religious) preferences of the American intelligentsia, as highly religious American whites are more likely to vote Republican than Democratic. Furthermore, focusing on religion could distract attention from other preferred responses to economic and social problems, such as greater redistribution or more spending on infrastructure (do Wisconsin and Iowa really need more infrastructure?) In contrast, I believe cultural problems require cultural solutions, and we as intellectuals and commentators could all contribute to this end by holding and communicating a more positive view of religion.

A second recommendation is about how we should talk about the problems of troubled parts of the U.S. As a university professor, I don’t find it intrinsically objectionable to “lecture” other people or tell them what to do or how they should think, provided it is framed as such. I am more worried by commentators who promote a rhetoric of empathy but combined with condescension on issues of substance. I see a flat-out unwillingness (on all sides of the debates) to accept alternative framings or differing views when it comes to the most polarizing, hot-button issues of U.S. politics, such as race, abortion and immigration.

A simple question is this: When you wake up in the morning and start to ponder your day, can you really imagine that, on key issues, “the deplorables” (whomever you might identify them to be) might be right and you wrong? And are you reading and promoting thinkers who encourage such open attitudes? If that is the case, the cultural dialogue in this country eventually will prove to be richer and rewarding, to the eventual benefit of us all.

I see a U.S. today where fewer people, from all points of view, are keeping that broader perspective in mind.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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