Which States Are City States?
Some You’d Expect, Some You Wouldn’t
Yesterday, I did a deep dive trying to come up with a plausible way to compare the degree of population concentration across countries in order to put some mental parameters around the exportability of various policy models. As I was doing it, I clearly also had U.S. states in mind, hence my ending segment comparing tax structures in the U.S. and E.U. Many readers asked me why I didn’t include estimates for states, and the answer is simply that the post was too long as it was and I wanted to publish quickly.
But here’s the same estimates, for states. I use metro area and division estimates as my unit. For cross-state metros, I treat each state-segment as its own metro area, no matter its size. Where metro division data is estimated, I use divisions instead of the full metro area. For the curious, I also produced county- and place-based estimates. I include the same penalties for high population percentage cities and largest-city-capitals, and a small bonus for a large number of large cities. I include the same concentration-reduction based on the rural share of the population (or, rather, the nonmetro share), index to ensure values range from 0% to 100%, etc. The only adjustment I don’t have to make is for data reporting format or data coverage, because I’m using U.S. Census Bureau data which has 100% coverage, and is reported in a harmonious format across states, so, awesome. But if you recall, I had low coverage for many of the foreign countries, which caused me to revise my concentration estimate downward. Thus, we should expect that state concentrations will be somewhat above foreign country concentrations simply due to more complete and thorough data coverage.
Without further ado, your full state-and-country population concentration index comparison!
As you can see, most U.S. states are within the range of my foreign countries, even as the USA on the whole (black bar, far left) is vastly less concentrated than most foreign countries. To me, that reinforces the view that the U.S. is a poor comparator vs. European countries, while U.S. states, for all their vast differences with foreign countries, are probably marginally better units of comparison.
Within the U.S., you can see that some of the high-concentration states are the ones you’d expect: DC and Rhode Island are pure city-states. Hawaii, Nevada, and Arizona come up next. At first glance these could be surprising, but all three are indeed dominated by just 1 giant metro area, and 2 of them have a largest city-capital. Then comes Minnesota, an example I’ve pointed out many times as a good city-state candidate. I’ll note here that Minnesota is vastly more concentrated around an urban center than any of the Nordics are; indeed, the Nordics range from 21.1 (Finland) to 31.2 (Denmark), whereas Minnesota is 52.59. States with concentration scores comparable to the Nordics would include Virginia, Washington, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah.
At the far left end of the scale, the most decentralized states are Florida, California, North Carolina, and Texas, which is no surprise. Big states with lots of people and cities, and none of them have a largest city-capital. But the next surprise is West Virginia. This is both thanks to West Virginia lacking any large metro area to dominate its urban environment, and thanks to a comparatively large non-metro population.
Here’s a map of U.S. metro-basis population concentration scores:
And, as for EU member states, we can look at the tax distribution in each state. Specifically, we can look at the amount of taxes remitted to the Federal entity by each U.S. state, the taxes collected by the state government, and the taxes collected by the local government. I want to note this is not equivalent to taxes paid by residents of a given state as non-residents pay many taxes in other states, and because the economic incidence of taxation is challenging to calculate, but this can at least tell us a bit about the distribution of responsibilities.
Now, let’s reiterate: this does not mean Delawarians actually pay 34% of their income to the Federal government. Large amounts of corporate headquarters in Delaware cause large amounts of corporate earnings to be declared there, causing many taxes to be remitted, but the sales that created that income did not occur in Delaware, nor did the employees being paid by that income reside in Delaware. Similar flukes of reporting and tax mitigation strategies, as well as cross-border taxation, mean you can’t call this the tax incidence or tax burden (Tax Foundation does a respectable job estimating spatial tax incidence).
But while that’s nifty and all… let’s compare to the EU real quick.
You can tell the EU countries by the dominance of the greenish-blue bar, as EU remissions are vanishingly small compared to U.S. federal tax collections.
But what I find interesting is that total tax collections for these 22 E.U. countries aren’t concentrated at either the top or bottom end of the spectrum. And if we compare just local governments, we get:
Now this is super weird.
Several things are going on here. First of all, the low-local-share EU countries tend to be unitary states with no subnational entities like states or provinces. Second of all, they tend to be small. The only large low-local-taxation EU country is the UK, and the UK has a fierce movement pushing for more devolution alongside very high population concentration around London, so definitely not an example for U.S. states.
On the right hand side are the Nordics regardless of size, and some of the bigger countries, though Latvia, Belgium,and Slovenia both show up here too: my guess here is that large local share of government in a small country may indicate some degree of historic or contemporary regionalist dysfunction.
The Nordics are truly exceptional. When I drop the Nordics from the sample, the correlation between population and local tax is 0.57, which is not bad given there’s good reason to think a larger population would induce devolution and zero reason to think devolution would induce larger population. So this is further evidence that an absolutely vital piece of the “Nordic model” is localism.
As in the last post, my point here is not that the EU is immediately comparable to the U.S, or Finland to Minnesota. Rather, it’s to keep beating a drum I’ve been beating for a long time: European social and economic policies are probably more exportable to U.S. states than they are to the U.S. on the whole. They’re not a copy-paste job in either case, but certainly the analog to U.S. states is a better one.
Francois Galante had a very good response to my previous post noting that the reason that liberals oppose localism is due to the history of sectional divides over race; i.e. the fear that the South might impose “socialism for white people.” But we need to keep two things in mind: first, “socialism for white people” is the actual Nordic model, so if that’s your critique, then, uh, cool, but Norway is approximately 90% white or more, and similar figures are true for other Nordics.
Second, and more importantly, that’s argument is kind of a non sequitur. The question of whether Social Security should be devolved as a state program is not going to impact voting rights. The Federal government could set program parameters and nondiscrimination rules but allow flexibility in terms of generosity, structure, etc. Whether or not we think healthcare reform should be done by the nation or the state has very little impact on whether or not the Federal government sets a rule saying, sorry, you can’t adjust subsidies based on race or some race-proxy. We can still have Federal civil rights legislation even if we have fiscal devolution.
And beyond that, if the argument is a more broader thing that we think racism will just cause Southern states to have inefficiently low levels of social support for everyone, then the basic argument is just that we want to force non-preferred redistribution. Okay, that works if you’re forcing a small or politically weak group to adopt a powerful majority’s view. But the South is outgrowing the north and is not moving left at any particularly rapid pace. Indeed, the Sunbelt growth has propelled a right-wing resurgence that is only just now reaching its peak.
So your option isn’t “Federally mandated redistribution” vs. “More federalism and less redistribution.” It’s “bitter national politics where the South succeeds in lowering redistribution for the whole nation” or “more amicable national politics where the south only punches its own face.” It’s not like the more liberal north has had any success recently in pushing the South to adopt major redistribution. Over the last 30 years, program after program has been rolled back or weakened, and by forcing Federal near-uniformity, the South has managed to drag the rest of the country to a less generous welfare model along with it.
To be crystal clear: I am arguing that the long-run political odds are pretty strongly in favor of the right being very powerful for decades to come at least. That being the case, and given that most welfare states liberals prefer are more devolved than the US anyways, it makes literally zero sense to me that liberals are so determinedly terrible at fighting in state houses, winning state elections, or even prioritizing state and local politics. It’s just DC all the way.
That should probably change. I’m not a liberal so I don’t really welcome liberals fighting harder at the state and local levels, but I would welcome at least a few of y’all waking up and smelling the roses and realizing how incredibly centralized the U.S. is and how dangerous that reality is.
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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.
My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.