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

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

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."

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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