The Death of Enlightenment – or How Nebraska Beats California

July 14, 2013
Children of the Corn. Now that's a tightly knit community.

Children of the Corn. Now that’s a tightly knit community.

So I’ve had this ongoing discussion with the eloquent liberal blogger Santi about the state of California. We both agree that this state embodies the ideas and the spirit of Enlightenment, being liberal, tolerant, open-minded, diverse, metropolitan and so on. All good qualities that will translate to a happy and prosperous society, he claims.

To me, however, being more of a social conservative (but still open to new ideas) these qualities are more problematic. Naturally I admire the original men of Enlightenment for trying to bring some rationality and justice into the Western societies of the 1700s, but today I think this movement or trend has degenerated into destructive and irrational project. It’s all good to have a little diversity and mutual respect for each other’s differences, but at the end of the day societies are based on what we have in common – not on what sets us apart. So there has to be a limit to our tolerance. Experience tells us that the fabric of society, the things that bind people together, is blood, history, religion, traditions and the values that come out of this mix. Friends of Enlightenment dismiss this idea and claim that all we need is to agree on some house rules, and then everyone can do their own thing while respecting each other. And so the discussion goes.

But instead of discussing, I thought it would be interesting to do a match-up between Team Enlightenment, in the form of California, with Team Tradition, in the form of a state that in as many ways as possible is the opposite of California. Using the description above as criteria, I settled for Nebraska. It’s a solidly red state with more people identifying as conservative than in most states. It has very little diversity being 86 percent White (82 percent non-Hispanic White). It’s one of the most religious states and Christianity is practically the only religion. It is rural and has no metropolitan areas. Nebraska also differ sharply from California in terms of personality, judging by data compiled by psychologist Peter Rentfrow – Californians are more introverted and open to experience while Nebraskans are more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious. (The two states score about equal on Neuroticism.) So are these hicks any match for California? Let’s start by looking at some basic economic factors and then on to general well-being, crime and corruption etc. To get some general perspective I’ve also added the national average on these metrics.

Economy

First off, here is the per capita income in thousands of dollar for the time period 1990-2011 (sorry about the x-axis; my chart skills are limited), data taken from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico,

per capita income

As we can see, California is staying on top for the entire period, but since incomes have roughly doubled during this time the relative differences are actually shrinking. To get a better idea of what is going on, I made a chart showing per capita income of Nebraska and the nation as percentages of Californian income for the same time period,

per capita percentages

Here we can see more clearly how national per capita income has been gaining on the Californian ditto, and even more so for Nebraska which has gone from 84 percent to 97 percent. That’s a very small advantage left for California and one that’s clearly diminishing in the long run. With that in mind, look at the next chart showing economic inequality,

Gini coefficient

The chart is showing the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality (the higher the more unequal), data taken from Wikipedia/US Census Bureau 2010. This is probably counter-intuitive to many people – the Republican Nebraska seems to be spreading the wealth way more than progressive California. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but more stats will confirm this picture. Such as for instance poverty rates,

Poverty

Here is the poverty rate for 2011 as a percentage of the population according to US Census Bureau. Almost one in four Californians are poor. That’s the highest rate of all states and more than twice that of Nebraska. Again we see that Nebraska is spreading the wealth somehow whereas California is not. We find a very similar picture if we look at unemployment, here the percentage rates for May 2013 according the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

unemployment

And if you think that is just a fluctuation and that California with all its creative people are busy generating jobs for the future, here is Gallup’s Job Creation Index for 2012,

job creation index

Evidently, Nebraska is much better at creating new jobs which explains the low unemployment, and probably also why the state has almost caught up with the Californian per capita income and looks to surpass it in the near future.

Health and Well-Being

Still, money isn’t everything. Perhaps the diversity and sunny weather makes for a happier and healthier life? Here is Gallup’s Well-Being Index for 2012,

well-being

Overall Nebraska scores higher although in fairness, looking at some of the sub-factors, Californians eat more fruit and vegetables, exercise more and have less obesity. But Nebraska still wins this round with more people with health insurance, more people who feel their neighbourhood is getting better and fewer people having diabetes – somehow those healthy Californians are still getting more diabetes – a matter of stress or genetic differences?

Crime and Corruption

Moving on to crime. I’ve chosen murder because it’s perhaps the most robust measure in this field (although using total crime will give a similar pattern). Here is the murder rate per 100K inhabitants in 2009 according to US Census Bureau,

murder rate

As you can see, the Californian murder rate is only slightly higher than the national average, but it is more than twice that of Nebraska.

As far as corruption goes the states are fairly similar: California is ranked 81 and Nebraska 80 on the State Integrity Investigation’s ranking for 2012, a negligible difference, but this index shows some weird fluctuations that are not present in the international Corruptions Perceptions Index. For this reason I’ve used actual convictions instead, compiled by the Justice Department and visualized in an interactive map at governing.com. Here are the convictions between 2000-2010 per 10K public employees by state,

convictions

California is clearly better than the national average but is again beaten by Nebraska, having almost twice as many convictions.

Education

Like State Integrity Investigation’s ranking, there are some subjective measures of the quality of education, so I’ve focused on actual attainments in the form of NAEP scores and statistics on degrees from the US Census Bureau. Here is the current situation in terms of achieved degrees,

degrees

California has a little edge when it comes to higher education but not much. The most conspicuous difference is how Nebraska has distinctly less people without a high school degree, something that fits well with the low poverty rate.

And for a look at what the future may hold, here are the NAEP scores for 8th graders in 2011,

naep

They look similar but California is below the national average in all categories whereas Nebraska is equal to the national average on math and slightly above on reading and science. And this of course means that Nebraska wins over California in all categories. The reason is most found in the changing demographics; the Californian population is now largely Mexican and Mexico has a national average IQ of 85 or thereabout.

The Verdict

I may be engaging in confirmation bias here, seeing what I want to see, but judging by these metrics, had this been a boxing match then California would have been lying on the floor by now. California has historically attracted smart people and Silicon Valley is still the high-tech hub of the nation. But per capita income is the only metric in which California clearly beats Nebraska. And that is likely to change as Nebraska now has 97 percent of the Californian income and has smarter school children.

So why is Team Tradition winning over Team Enlightenment? I believe it’s because Team Tradition is built on common denominators – ethnic, religious and historical. That creates trust, loyalty and friendship – and that translates to less crime, and probably less poverty too as people know each other and become more inclined to help one another. It also creates more well-being (less stress and insecurity) and more efficient ways of doing business. It probably leads to more corruption sometimes, when people get a bit too friendly, but judging by this example that isn’t always the outcome.

Meanwhile, the only thing members of Team Enlightenment have in common is the idea that they don’t need to have anything in common other than a set of rules. This creates a team of strangers who have no good reason to be loyal, friendly or trusting of each other. It’s a team who will settle all their conflicts in court – or with a gun – and who will welcome any new members regardless of their qualifications or abilities. How can that team ever win?

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