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Do You Trust Your State Government?


When people around the country are asked whether they trust their state government to handle the state’s problems, how do you think they answer? Where would you guess they might be most distrustful and where least?

It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people in Illinois are least trusting. Only 28 percent of residents in the Land of Lincoln trust their state government “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Government fares better in Rhode Island and Maine, but not by much. In each of those two states, only two out of five residents trust the government.

What about the other end of the spectrum—people who really trust their state government? Where do they live? They’re Westerners, one and all. In North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas, and Alaska, more than 70 percent of residents trust their state government “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”

These data come from a poll released recently by Gallup. In the second half of 2013, Gallup interviewed a random sample of at least 600 residents in every state about their trust in their state’s government. This map groups the states into three broad categories, making it easy to see at a glance where the more trustful populations are:

What accounts for the differences? Gallup focuses on population as a factor:

In general, trust is lower in more populous states than in less populous states. The 10 most populous states and 10 least populous states differ by 11 percentage points in state government trust, with the middle population states in between. Larger states have larger economies and more citizens needing services, and often more diverse populations, so they may be more challenging to govern than smaller states.

But the analysts aren’t so naive as to suggest that it’s only the large economy and diverse population of Illinois that explain its outlier status as the state with, by far, the lowest percentage of trusting residents:

Illinois’ position at the bottom of the list in residents’ trust in state government is not surprising, given that its last two governors, Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan, were sentenced to jail for crimes committed while in office. Two prior Illinois governors from the 1960s and 1970s also went to jail.

Yes, it isn’t hard to discern why Illinoisans might cast a suspicious eye on their state government. For expedience, let’s call that case closed.

What about Rhode Island and Maine, next lowest on the trust index? Each only gets two-fifths of their residents to report much trust in state government. Is this also a matter of out-of-control corruption? People may think so, especially in the case of Rhode Island. (Think Buddy Cianci or the recent but still unexplained abrupt resignation of the speaker of the state’s house.) But as Katharine Seelye noted in Sunday’s New York Times, the perception of high levels of political corruption in Rhode Island is belied by studies showing that, at least as measured by convictions of public officials, it is actually among the least corrupt states.

A more likely factor influencing the trustful feelings of Ocean State residents is a high unemployment rate. As Gallup states: “Healthy economies are generally associated with higher levels of trust in state government.” In 2013, Rhode Island still had, on average for the year, the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, at 9.5 percent. Only Nevada’s was worse.

Extremely low levels of job growth in Maine may also be the reason for that state’s low ranking on the trust index. The Maine Center for Economic Policy reportsthat “Maine ranks 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in total job growth since January 2011.” And some analysts point to actions by Maine Governor Paul LePage and the state legislature as being responsible for the stagnant economy there—and for the resultant low levels of trust.

What’s up with the Westerners at the other end of the trust spectrum? The five states with the highest rates of trust in state government did, in fact, have impressively low rates of unemployment in the last quarter of 2013—North Dakota (2.6 percent), Wyoming (4.5 percent), Utah (4.3 percent), South Dakota (3.6 percent), and Nebraska (3.7 percent). So a healthy economy seems to be an important factor. And people in western, less-populated states generally seem to be more happy with their states, more inclined to think their states are among the best places to live. The effects of these feelings may cross over to attitudes toward state government.

But absent sophisticated quantitative analyses involving much more data, any efforts to parse the differences among states on this subject are likely to hit dead ends. Let’s focus instead on the nationwide average of Americans’ attitudes about state government.

Until this poll, Gallup has only measured Americans’ trust in their state governments on a national basis. (In other words, the questions were asked in nationwide polls, so the data on that question could not be disaggregated and reported for individual states.) The last time Gallup reported on that nationwide result (September 2013), 62 percent of Americans trusted their state government—down three percentage points from the year before. This graph shows what those national-basis figures looked like over the past 40 years:

According to the new Gallup poll, the nationwide average has ticked down another four percentage points to 58 percent. That’s still much, much higher than the percentage of people who say they trust the federal government most of the time—now at 19 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. (I should note that Gallup finds trust in the federal government to be higher than Pew does. The difference probably stems from how the questions are worded: Pew’s question is more vague and general, Gallup’s more specific about trust in the government’s handling of policy problems, international and domestic.)

Still, we’re left to ask: Why is Americans’ trust in their state governments eroding now, in the same way that their trust in the federal government has been decliningfor most of the last half-century? While one can offer explanations for such attitudes in individual states, it’s much harder to figure out what accounts for the nationwide declines depicted in the line graph above.

Why the sudden uptick from 1997 to 1999? Why the precipitous decline from 1999 to 2004? (The decline around 2009 is likely related to the distressed economy.) What accounts for all this relatively sudden fluctuation? Please share your views in the comment section.

Distrust of government is a leitmotif in American history. Wariness and suspicion of governmental authority are certainly not alien to the national experience. But another theme in Americans’ collective attitude toward government has been that we are more trustful of governments and politicians who are close to the people, while distrusting far-off elites. That may be changing, as attitudes toward state governments seem now in flux.


This piece originally appeared at

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Which States are Givers? Which are Takers?


Maps showing regional differences among Americans are all the rage these days, such as this depiction of the contours of baseball fandom, or this one of the beers we’re alleged to favor, or this showing the places in America where none of us lives, or this creative video/map showing where Americans use different words for common things such as soda.

For my money, one of the more interesting maps appearing recently came from the personal-finance website Wallet Hub. Analysts there set out to determine how states compare in terms of their reliance on federal funding. The states deemed “most dependent” by the analysis are bright red on the map, those “least dependent” are bright green. You can move your cursor around on the map to see how each state ranks. (There were some ties.)


The Wallet Hub analysts essentially asked how much each state receives back as a return on its federal income-tax investment.  They compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia on three metrics: 1) federal spending per capita compared with every dollar paid in federal income taxes; 2) the percentage of a state’s annual revenue that comes from federal funding; and 3) the number of federal employees per capita.  The third measure received only half the weight of each of the others in the calculation.

What the resulting map shows is that the most “dependent states,” as measured by the composite score, are Mississippi and New Mexico, each of which gets back about $3 in federal spending for every dollar they send to the federal treasury in taxes. Alabama and Louisiana are close behind.

If you look only at the first measure—how much the federal government spends per person in each state compared with the amount its citizens pay in federal income taxes—other states stand out, particularly South Carolina: The Palmetto State receives $7.87 back from Washington for every $1 its citizens pay in federal tax. This bar chart, made from Wallet Hub’s data, reveals the sharp discrepancies among states on that measure.

On the other side of this group, folks in 14 states, including Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio, get back less than $1 for each $1 they spend in taxes.

It’s not just that some states are getting way more in return for their federal tax dollars, but the disproportionate amount of federal aid that some states receive allows them to keep their own taxes artificially low. That’s the argument Wallet Hub analysts make in their 2014 Report on Best & Worst States to be a Taxpayer.

Part of the explanation for why southern states dominate the “most dependent” category is historical. During the many decades in the 20th century when the South was solidly Democratic, its congressional representatives in both the House and the Senate, enjoying great seniority, came to hold leadership positions on powerful committees, which they used to send federal dollars back to their home states in the form of contracts, projects, installations.

Another part of the explanation is easier to discern. The reddest states on that map at the top—Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, Maine—have exceptionally high poverty rates and thus receive disproportionately large shares of federal dollars. Through a variety of social programs, the federal government disburses hundreds of billions of dollars each year to maintain a “safety net” intended to help the neediest among us. Consider, for example, the percentage of each state’s residents who get “food stamps” through the federal government’s SNAP program. This chart tells the story.

Another way of getting at the same point is to map the percentage of families in 2012 with incomes below the federal poverty level (according to the Census Bureau’s ACS five-year estimate). This map, made through Social Explorer, shows the data at the county level: the darker the shading, the higher the percentage of impoverished residents.

You can go here to see an interactive version of this map that enables you to scroll your cursor over counties and get pop-up information showing the percentages for any specific county. You can also change the map view, showing the data at different levels, ranging from states all the way down to individual census block groups. (To see the mapped data at sub-county levels, you have to zoom way in to particular areas.)

There are various ways of thinking about what Wallet Hub’s “state dependency” map tells us. One approach is to shine light on the red-states-as takers paradox: Dominated by Republican voters who profess their distaste for the federal government and its social programs, these are the very states that rank highest on the dependency index.  That, for example, is how Business Insider handled the story:

[W]ho really benefits from government spending? If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you might think it was those blue states, packed with damn hippie socialist liberals, sipping their lattes and providing free abortions for bored, horny teenagers. . . .

As it turns out, it is red states that are overwhelmingly the Welfare Queen States. Yes, that’s right. Red States — the ones governed by folks who think government is too big and spending needs to be cut — are a net drain on the economy, taking in more federal spending than they pay out in federal taxes. They talk a good game, but stick Blue States with the bill.

Fair enough. That’s a catchy perspective. And there are few things more fun than exposing hypocrisy.

Alternatively, we could use the “state dependency” map as an opportunity to reflect on a different paradox—the longstanding  role of the far-away federal government as an agent of community. Because of federal programs, people in places like South Carolina and Mississippi are getting a helping hand not from their neighbors a few blocks away or in the next county over, but from residents of Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska. Whether you like that idea depends, in part, on how you personally reconcile the tension between two long-cherished, core American values—our passion for individualism and our regard for community—and whether you see “community” as encompassing the whole country.

That’s a far more interesting thing to think about (though perhaps less viscerally satisfying) than which states are moochers or freeloaders and which are getting fleeced.


This post originally appeared on

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Recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis


Fifty years ago tonight, President John Kennedy went on television and told the American people that he had ordered a blockade of Cuba. The purpose was to prevent the Soviet Union from successfully completing the shipment there of parts for ballistic missiles that could be used to strike the United States. It was a perilous moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for the next seven days Americans and others around the world nervously waited to see what would happen.

Would Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev instruct Soviet ships to try to run the blockade? Would the Soviets launch a preemptive strike against the United States? Would American naval destroyers or Air Force jets sink a Soviet freighter, sparking a Soviet reaction? Would any of these possible events — or some error or miscalculation — lead to nuclear war?

It’s often said that the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of events that brought humankind to the brink of nuclear conflagration, marked the most dangerous moment so far in human history. The decisions and actions of American and Soviet leaders during those tense two weeks in October 1962 have been the subject of dozens of books and articles. We know a lot, and are learning more, about what went on in the meeting rooms and corridors of power. (For an interesting look back on those events, watch this video from a new National Archives exhibit.)

Thinking about the arrival of its 50th anniversary, I realized that I knew surprisingly little about what ordinary Americans did during that crisis period. How did they behave? How did they react to those frightful events? There’s almost nothing written on the subject. The notable exception is a fine book by Alice George, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis.Here’s part of what I’ve learned from reading George.

Most people, of course, did absolutely nothing. They didn’t plan out ways to flee to “safe” areas; they didn’t stockpile supplies; they didn’t discuss with family members what to do in the event of attack. Partly, this was because of massive denial; partly it was a recognition of the futility of action. People understood that all-out nuclear war was not something they were likely to survive. Other people chose inaction not because they were in denial, but because they assumed the crisis was overblown political theater or that it would not lead to war.

My own family, living in Denver, did nothing. I don’t know if it was because of denial or a belief that war was not on the horizon. I recall sitting in front of the television as my family watched Kennedy’s address to the nation on the night of the 22nd. And I remember going to school the next day, afraid that missiles might blow us all up at some point in the following days. Out on the playground at lunchtime, the macho fifth-grade boys joked about kissing our asses goodbye, but there was genuine anxiety lurking behind our usual bluster. George reports that the common joke among youngsters — a joke that said a lot about that generation’s world view — was “what are you going to be if you grow up?”

We were a generation of schoolchildren steeped in the civil-defense ethos of the time, which consisted of simple-minded platitudes concerning preparation: We were taught to seek cover under our desks in the case of incoming missiles. We knew by heart certain passages from the ridiculous “Duck and Cover” film that was staple fare in schools in the 1950s. Bert the Turtle modeled the desired behavior:

Alice George’s research reveals that, during the missile crisis, Americans matured, moving beyond the “duck and cover” mentality of the previous decade. They came to realize that their government was unprepared to protect them in the event of nuclear war. Despite Cold War nervousness and the wisdom of planning for a nuclear conflict, civil-defense spending had been minuscule.

Consequently, public civil-defense shelters were relatively few in number and were woefully equipped. Newspapers published lists of designated shelters, but unfortunately most people would find no room there if war broke out. Worse yet, the shelters were drastically under-supplied: “None had been stocked with supplies in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Camden, Newark, Louisville, El Paso, Denver, Des Moines, Wichita, Salt Lake City, Long Beach, Sacramento, Phoenix, or Seattle. The District of Columbia, with a population of 784,000, had enough stocked shelter space for 5,514.”

George writes that “a reporter checked one of Denver’s ‘stocked’ shelters and found two dozen chairs, twelve empty 17.5-gallon water cans, several hundred boxes of survival crackers, fifteen stretchers, first-aid and radiation-detection kits, and civil defense literature.” This was 16 months after the US started construction of the the North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD] center in Colorado Springs, 68 miles away. So the Denver metropolitan area might well have been considered a prime target.

Some people had built bomb shelters in their homes, but the actual prospect of survival in such shelters was slight, and other citizens saw such behavior as irrational: “Almost 60 percent believed that family shelter owners would have to fight to keep neighbors out if war began, and 64 percent said that living in a shelter for a long time would drive many people insane.”

While there were civil-defense sirens in most places, and a national warning system that would sound in the event of approaching missiles, “for most people in target areas, this would provide only a few moments for desperate measures and prayers.”

As the crisis went on, many Americans began stockpiling in the event of war, but such behavior was uneven. In San Francisco, Columbus, Boston, and Chicago, there were no reports of such behavior. And people who were proactive were not always practical. George cites the case of a woman who reportedly bought 40 jars of instant coffee. When asked what she would do for water in the event of a nuclear attack, she replied that she had never thought of that.

In some cities (Dallas, St. Petersburg, FL, and Charlottesville, VA), gun sales were brisk. In New Orleans, it was transistor radios; in Houston, batteries; in Columbus, SC, auto tires; in Denton, TX, new cars (somewhat inexplicably). In Fort Worth, TX, the civil defense director observed, after noting a rush on grocery stores, “The idea is to survive — not to get fat.”

In short, with little realistic prospect of surviving an attack, most Americans, especially those in likely target zones, appear to have done nothing other than face the crisis with a grim fatalism, and the kind of false bravado displayed by my fifth-grade friends. One wonders how Americans today would face such terrifying prospects — and whether the government is really any more prepared to defend us now than it was then.


This piece originally appeared at

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Government Spending Falls Under Obama

The right-wing claim that government spending under President Obama is "out of control" is, of course, sheer nonsense. Now, we have Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal, two bastions of conservative journalism, confirming that, in fact, spending by the federal government is growing at a slower rate than at any time in 60 years — since Eisenhower!  Two compelling charts:




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Go FOIA Yourself

Listening to the radio in the car this weekend, I heard an "On the Media" segment with host Bob Garfield interviewing OTM producer Sarah AbdurrahmanIn about her recent attempts to find out what sorts of information the U.S. government has collected about her.  She explains how she sent out personal Freedom of Information Act Requests to numerous government agencies.  After hearing this segment, I've decided to do the same.





Think the FBI, Secret Service, or other federal agencies haven't collected any information about you?  You may be surprised.  Listen to Sarah's story and you, too, may decide to write in to find out what the government's files say about you.  I've just done it.  It's easy.  As Sarah explains, one way to do it easily is to start here at Get My FBI File.

Richard Shelby: Good Example of What’s Wrong with America

ShelbyIf you don't already know why Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the epitome of what is wrong with American politics and government these days, see this post by Jim Fallows today. 

Shame on Shelby.  And shame on all of us Americans for letting this sort of pathological idiocy cripple our system of government.

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The Insidious Shift in Debate

It's no great insight.  Everybody recognizes that the horrific thing about recent policy debate in Washington is that the Republicans have succeeded in shifting the discourse to their turf.  Rep. Paul Ryan's cynical and sinister budget proposal, which would destroy Medicare as we know it, dismantle Medicaid, and defund many other programs that help the poor and dispossessed in America — BUT PROTECT LOW TAXES ON THE WEALTHIEST! — is now driving the discussion.  

Can President Obama, in his speech tomorrow night, change the direction of this? We'll see. Meanwhile: