June 28, 2013

When it comes to promise and peril in the U.S. economy, your instinct is to listen to someone like Meredith Whitney. Back in 2007, when sunny adjectives were used to describe the country’s economic situation, the banking analyst saw the storm clouds looming in the housing market, and unlike others, she warned of what was coming.

Whitney’s understanding of the great collapse of 2008 is on display in her latest book, “Fate of the States.” If you are looking for a quick, accessible explanation of how we got into the mess we’re in, Chapter 2, “Housing Revisited,” is a nice explainer. And she draws some thoughtful conclusions about the present and future from her understanding of the housing crunch. “In the near term, the economic gap between the have and have-not states cannot be closed without rapid reinflation of the housing market,” she writes, “and that seems unlikely given the current state of mortgage finance in the United States.” It’s a good point, and one could argue that it is true not just of a few states but of the economy as a whole.

“Fate of the States,” however, is about more than the housing industry. It aims to be a broad examination of where the country’s economy is going and who the winners and losers will be in the great shakeout that we are all witnessing and that some of us are acutely feeling. This point is where the book and Whitney’s analytical powers hit a wall.

Her principal argument is that the states that missed out on much of the boom of the past decade, and on the bust that followed, are ripe for good times. The “coastal and Sun Belt states . . . can no longer afford to spend as much” on services, she writes, while the “central corridor states,” which essentially go from Montana and the Dakotas down to Texas, “are booming and so are tax receipts and spending on core services.”

There are some real challenges to this framework. That “central corridor” is massive. It includes states that have been economic winners for quite some time (Texas and Colorado) and others (the Dakotas and the Great Plains states) that are fundamentally different from one another, not just economically but in a variety of other ways, from ethnic demographics to education rates. Ascribing a common identity or future to them is a perilous game that can create awkward comparisons.

‘Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity’ by Meredith Whitney (Penguin)

Bigger problems come in the data the book uses to make its points. Whitney holds herself up as a data person; her understanding of housing data allowed her to see that coming collapse. But numbers can be tricky. Much of their meaning is derived from viewpoint and context. The cardinal sin of dealing with data is mistaking correlation for causation, and Whitney does that often in “Fate of the States.”

For instance, in her desire to talk about the economic struggles of California, Whitney notes that the state’s education budget has faced cuts — more than $6 billion since 2008, she says. Then a few sentences later she ties those cuts to changes in educational achievement: “In 1990 California had a 1.3 percent lead over the United States as a whole in the share of its population that had graduated from high school. By 2008, California’s population had 6 percent fewer high school graduates than the national average.” That’s an interesting set of numbers, but there is a long list of socioeconomic factors that might explain it — from immigration into California to improvements in graduation numbers elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that the cuts she writes about happened after 2008.

Later in the same chapter Whitney writes that Wyoming boasts the country’s lowest public university tuition even as the state spends more than most on higher education. “Perhaps not coincidentally,” she writes, “Wyoming now boasts the fifth-highest per-capita income in the country.” Or, perhaps completely coincidentally. There’s simply no way of knowing without more data on a host of other potential factors. Starting with an idea and adding a number here or there without context doesn’t show causation. This kind of numerical cherry-picking appears often in the book, on everything from states with rising poverty rates to migration to and from right-to-work states.

Some of the conclusions in “Fate of the States” frankly seem to be reaches. Yes, the idea that manufacturing is coming back, in the middle of the country and elsewhere, has been making headlines recently. But the 30-to-40-year trend shows an unmistakable decline, particularly when it comes to the number of people employed in manufacturing. Automation is a big reason. Far fewer people work on production lines today than in the past, and that trend is likely to continue.

And it’s true that the Dakotas are seeing more tax revenue and building infrastructure thanks to oil and gas extraction. But it is far from clear whether that change is something permanent or rather a temporary boom like, say, the housing boom of the past decade. There is, as yet, no clear sign that all the workers coming for the jobs in those states are planning to stick around and raise families on the prairie.

The biggest issues in “Fate of the States,” however, may come from the book’s unit of measurement. States are big, complex places that are hard to characterize simply. Texas, for instance, is one of the book’s big winners. Its population is growing, and it attracted about 225,000 people from California in the first decade of this century. And Whitney notes how Austin has gained jobs from California tech firms such as Apple and eBay. So there’s some proof that Texas is ascendant.

But there’s another side to the numbers on Texas not found in the book. About 30 percent of the state’s counties lost population between 2000 and 2010 — small, rural, struggling places. The tech jobs and tax revenue Austin is luring into the state may help those counties some, but it’s very unlikely we’ll be looking at them as “winners” in 2020.

Dante Chinni is director of the American Communities Project at American University and the author of “Our Patchwork Nation.”


The New Geography
of American Prosperity

By Meredith Whitney

Portfolio/Penguin. 260 pp. $27.95