The states with the happiest Americans spend more money on ‘public goods’

People prefer to live in states that invest in life-easing amenities.

The states with the happiest Americans spend more money on ‘public goods’

Photo credit: Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

  • Study reveals the Americans who live in states that spend more on tangible "public goods" are happier.
  • This spending makes communities "more livable."
  • Pain of higher property taxes largely balanced out by higher property values and quality of life.


For those of us who don't have enough money to pave our own roads, pay for security — aka police departments — or develop recreational spaces such as parks, there's really no avoiding taxes. Taxation, after all, allows each of us to contribute just a portion of the cost for the things we, as a society, need. Theoretically, taxes essentially make us one big buying club, with the cost-saving benefits such groups typically enjoy.

Still, there are many people who hate taxes, in particular those wealthy enough to simply buy whatever it is they need. Often branding themselves as Libertarians, they manifest resentment and even outrage at being expected to contribute their money to pay for things they feel other people need. Politically speaking, their representatives have been incredibly successful at spreading this sense of outrage to the polar-opposite end of the economic spectrum, the very people most in need of the things taxes buy.

As a result, there's constant pressure brought by anti-tax groups on state governments to spend less and less on schools and "public goods" such as roads, police, parks and hospitals so that taxes are kept as absolutely low as possible. However, researchers of a new study — it was published in the journal Social Science Research in November of 2018 — found that the happiest Americans are those who live in states that spend the most on public goods.

The Baylor study

Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

The study analyzed responses from the NORC's General Social Survey, conducted from 1976 to 2006, in which participants self-reported their level of happiness. These results were collated with data on state-government spending during the same period from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Study author political scientist Patrick Flavin says that people said that spending on public goods made their communities "more livable, with more amenities."

He explains how this happens using examples: "If roads are completed and kept up so that people aren't stuck in traffic, they have more time to do things they enjoy doing. Large parks are social spaces — and one clear finding of happiness studies is that people who are more socially connected tend to be happier."

The study found that the benefits are felt by everyone regardless of education, gender, and race/ethnicity.

"We can look at the city where people live," says Flavin, "their neighborhoods, and see how public goods spending predicts happiness after taking other important factors, such as marital status, health, education and income, into account."

"But my property taxes!"

Photo credit: Tom Rumble on Unsplash

State and local taxes come from a combination of property and sales taxes, with property taxes producing the lion's share of income. It's typically property taxes that most concerns anti-taxers, and many would consider the idea of states spending more to be obviously terrible. But the study found a fascinating trade-off when areas impose higher real estate taxes. In addition to the benefits noted above, the value of homes in such areas rises. So, notes Flavin:

"While higher property taxes generally accompany higher home values, it seems that the good outweighs the unfortunate part about having to pay higher taxes."

Not quite as controversial as federal taxation

Photo credit: Jamie Street on Unsplash

Communities that spend more on public goods often find that taxes are less controversial among their citizens than those levied nationally. Flavin theorizes that this is because the things paid for locally tend to be more tangible and visible than things on which the federal government spends. He suggests another factor that may lead to broader agreement on spending: "I think there is less political conflict over public goods spending simply because if the government doesn't provide them, they won't be provided at all"

A caveat

Flavin does note that the conclusion his research draws merits a caveat thanks to the potential for a certain circular effect: "It could be that happier citizens self-select by moving to states that spend comparatively more on public goods." And, "It also is possible that happier citizens support higher spending on public goods and elect state officials to deliver on that policy."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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