A recent NPR story covering the changes in Kansas politics has motivated me to write about the beneficiaries of federal spending. The report focuses on how Kansas, a state once known for its moderate, tolerant, and progressive polity, has transformed into a bastion of the radical right, with the current governor, Sam Brownback, determined to turn Kansas into a “red-state model.” Much of the blame for this political mutation, according to NPR, can be traced to the flood of outside money pouring into the state’s elections. This outside influence has reshaped the political discourse in the state from one of moderate differences to one of hyper-partisan extremes more similar to the rhetoric found in Washington. At one point in the story, a political scientist from Washburn University in Topeka discusses how Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Boyda lost her re-election bid in 2008. According to the professor, Congresswoman Boyda lost her seat because she was labeled a “tax and spend” acolyte of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid axis of Democratic evil. Voters were told this was bad for Kansas and Mrs. Boyda lost to her Republican challenger. This got me thinking about whether “tax and spend” policies really are bad for Kansas and the disconnect between political discourse and reality in our country. Assuming that Mrs. Boyda was in fact a proponent of tax-and-spend, was this actually bad for Kansas? My gut told me no, but I decided to look into it anyway.
According to the conservatives that sling the “tax and spend” slur, Democrats are a naive bunch who believe government can solve any problem. As a result, they are always asking for more and more money so as to expand the reach of the government into areas where it doesn’t belong. The solution, according to Republicans, is to dramatically scale back the scope of the federal government by slashing both taxes and spending. Returning the federal government to a more minimal role in society and the economy will unleash the dynamism of the American people, or so we are told.
Regardless of whether this argument has any merit, I find it interesting that, on average, those who benefit most from federal spending are so adamantly opposed to more of it. As you can see in the chart below, the majority of states (including Kansas) that receive more than $1 back in federal spending for every $1 in taxes they send to Washington tend to vote for Republicans. On the other end, those states that receive less than $1 back for every $1 sent tend to vote Democratic.
So, if voters vote with their pocketbooks, they’re doing it wrong! Granted, it can be hard to trace one’s current economic situation to the level of federal spending in one’s state, but I still find it ironic that those who benefit most from federal spending are simultaneously trying to shrink the government. If anything it’s the states that currently vote Democratic that should be sick and tired of the government sending all their money to other states. New York should be voting Republican!
I am not advocating for this outcome, however. No country like the United States could exist peacefully without the transfer of wealth being inherently built into the governing system. Having some states benefit more from federal spending is the price we as a country pay to remain united and prosperous. It’s been this way from the beginning and is unlikely to change, nor should it. In fact, the failure of Germany to embrace the principle of wealth transfer within the European Union is one of the main reasons why the EU remains a stalled, incoherent, mess of semi-integrated nation states.
Yet whereas in Europe the creditor nations are strictly opposed to subsidizing the debtor nations, in the United States the situation is the reverse. It’s just one more example of how misrepresented and disconnected from reality our politics has become. Up is down, left is right, bad is good, etc. And, as the example of Kansas shows, this distortion has the perverse consequence of people voting against their own economic self-interest, which in turn, can warp the national political landscape. While this phenomenon has received coverage in recent years (most notably in Thomas Franks famous 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas), the politics of federal spending has only become more radicalized and detached from reality. This is a shame because I believe the antagonism that defines the current national conversation on spending could be largely avoided if the facts were more widely known, which is why I am dedicating a blog post to this issue. As someone who generally believes in a robust role for the federal government, I am eager to see the phrase “tax and spend” lose its status as a pejorative. It would be nice if someday soon, no one was wondering what’s wrong with Kansas politics.