From the annals of hand-waving: Emily Badger of the Washington Post concedes that Senator Rand Paul had it right last night about income inequality and lefty cities — that they have it the worst — but insists that this doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Of course not! How could it possibly? That would imply a failure of progressivism, and we all know that such a thing is not possible. Harrumph, harrumph, etc.
Rather, Badger insists, big Democrat cities have lots of income inequality because they are so freaking awesome, and so some people make lots and lots of money there. Well . . . not exactly. California has a lot of rich Democrats living in rich Democrat neighborhoods, but it isn’t remarkably affluent: The median income for a three-person household in the Golden State is about what it is in Nebraska, a little less than it is in Pennsylvania, and quite a bit less than it is in Wyoming. The median household income in California is about one-tenth of the median house price in California, meaning that the median Californian family cannot really afford to live in California. If you compare actual incomes with the real cost of living in the Bay Area vs. a relatively downscale place like Houston, the poorer-on-paper place looks a Hell of a lot better off.
Senator Paul’s point — that it sucks a lot harder to be poor in Philadelphia than it does in Omaha — is of course accurate. We tend to see less income inequality and (much more important) more economic mobility in places such as Salt Lake City, which isn’t particularly conservative or Republican but which exhibits some of the critical features that conservative policies seek to cultivate, namely relatively stable families and accountable governmental institutions, particularly public schools. Places such as Oakland and Cleveland that are dominated by corrupt public-sector unions and affiliated special-interest groups are pretty god-awful when it comes to providing services (and good public policies) for the poor and vulnerable people who need them most. There aren’t a lot of Republican-dominated big cities to provide points of comparison, but big cities embedded in Republican-dominated states tend to look pretty good in comparison. The example of Salt Lake city may be that cities such as Cleveland need relatively conservative policies that bring a measure of accountability to their public institutions; it may be that they just need more thrifty Mormons. I suspect it’s a bit of both.
Speaking of which, the other awkward thing is that relatively successful lefty-dominated cities such as Portland generally have something in common: They’re overwhelmingly white. If you’re interested in which jurisdictions do a relatively good job providing services to people who aren’t affluent white suburbanites, take a gander at Texas.
California has a statewide variation on the Manhattan problem: It’s an attractive place to live if you’re too rich to care or too poor to care, but it’s pretty rough if you’re in the middle, where you have to care. The fact that San Francisco is rich doesn’t tell you much more about the progressive model of governance than the fact that Tribeca is rich does. It’s a relatively small enclave where the average home costs north of $1 million. Though I’ve never understood the allure of San Francisco (I’m more of a Los Angeles kind of guy), it’s obviously an enormously attractive place to a great many very wealthy people from all over the world. Hurray for them. But to Senator Paul’s point, the challenge before us isn’t making the country a great place to live if you’re a billionaire; everywhere’s potentially pretty nice if you’re a billionaire. But if you’re a family of four earning $60,000 a year, you’re probably going to be happier and more secure in Oklahoma City than in San Jose.