Are States Outmoded?

Indiana residents who follow state economic trends probably know the name Morton Marcus. Marcus–who sometimes comments here– used to head up a business school think tank at Indiana University, and even though he’s retired, remains a popular public speaker–not just because he is very knowledgable, but because he’s always been willing to speak his mind and share his often “unorthodox” opinions.

When I first joined the faculty at IUPUI, Morton’s office was down the hall, and he would sometimes pop in to discuss those opinions. I still remember a conversation in which he argued that states–whose boundaries have always been artificial–no longer made sense. Instead, he thought the U.S. should be governed through designated areas of economic influence: the Chicago region, the Boston region, etc.

I thought back to that conversation when I read a recent paper issued by the Brookings Institution. Many years later, Brookings scholars have evidently come to the same conclusion.

The paper began by noting the country’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbated by the failure to coordinate governance across local and state lines.

There are a number of ways in which the patchwork of state responses–and the tendency of many Republican governors and legislators to treat the pandemic as a political and economic problem rather than a public health crisis–is leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths. The recent majority decision by Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court justices to the effect that the state’s Democratic governor lacked the authority to order a uniform state response is just an extreme example of the chaos caused by internal state political struggles.

Even without the politicization of Covid-19, however, state lines complicate government’s response. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the problem during a  briefing about plans to deploy contact tracing:

“If I turn up positive, yeah, my residence is in Westchester County, but I work in New York City, and I would have contacted many more people in New York City than I did in Westchester…If you’re going to do these tracing operations, you can’t do it within just your own county, because you will quickly run into people who are cross-jurisdictional.”

The paper pointed out that the multiple governance dysfunctions caused by state lines aren’t limited to those highlighted by the pandemic:

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, our planning processes formalized many inequities within and across regions, ranging from hospital bed availability to housing inventory to environmental racism…

Before the coronavirus arrived, both established metropolitan regions and “megaregions”—combinations of two or more metro areas—were consolidating at unprecedented levels. This brief presents evidence documenting these trends, and makes the case for new state and federal policy frameworks to address cross-jurisdictional equity problems that emerge when everyday activities happen in a mega-region.

The paper describes the changes in residential and commercial activity over the past decades, resulting in the creation of what the authors call “large polycentric regions, or a “megapolitan America.” Jobs, housing, and consumption now occur across multiple state and municipal jurisdictions. Significant numbers of people commute between cities or town centers. Etc.

The paper describes several of these regions, and the inequities within them, and I encourage those of you who are interested in the data to click through and read the entire paper. But living in Indiana, I was particularly struck by this description of one problem caused by the mismatch between legal jurisdictions and contemporary realities:

The lack of regional governance institutions is particularly problematic for addressing equity problems within regions. For example, a worker may live in a lower-cost municipality and work in a wealthier one. The revenues generated in the wealthy area will not normally support the services available in the worker’s lower-cost neighborhood if it is in a different county.

We have the opposite situation in the Indianapolis region: workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis (where state government agencies and nonprofit statewide organizations occupy roughly 25% of the real estate and are exempt from property taxation), but their taxes go to their already flush home counties.

The Brookings paper provides one more example of an over-arching and increasingly dire problem–the failure of America’s governing institutions to keep pace with contemporary realities. Structures like the Electoral College, the filibuster, the way we conduct and finance elections, and the way we allocate governance responsibilities among local, state and federal authorities are just a few of the systems that no longer serve their intended purposes.

A blue wave in November is an absolutely essential first step toward addressing America’s creaky governing infrastructure.  Given the percentage of voters who remain in the cult that was once the GOP, however, I don’t have high hopes for the thoroughgoing reforms we need.


  1. It is hard to imagine Vermont agreeing to be part of either the Boston Region or the New York Region. And would Indiana be comfortable in the Chicago Region? Think about Indiana and the problems caused by the outsized influence of the rural areas on state government.

  2. It’s actually hard to imagine any state agreeing to become part of a new reality dominated by another state or locality. We are, at our core, a very parochial people. We take pride in our state regardless of its inability to manage itself. After all, we would be pointing the finger at ourselves since we are the source of that mismanagement.

  3. Pascal; if push came to outmoding designated states, don’t you see Indiana more likely to become part of the Louisville Region? They were both considered “border states” during the Civil War and racism is still thriving in Indiana as in Kentucky and all southern states.

    I am more concerned with the gerrymandered District lines within states which often straddle county lines and the rural areas tend to support the Brian Bosma Republican faction with no opposition, even within their own party for Primary Elections. City-County Councilor’s districts cover large areas; they do not seem to be familiar with the different needs or the makeup of residents in their own districts, not seeking and not getting input from those they represent. How would you define their “regions”?

    “…workers who commute to Indianapolis from wealthy suburbs in other counties. These commuters use the infrastructure and public services paid for by cash-strapped Indianapolis …”

    Not only do their tax dollars go to their home counties; their paychecks from Indianapolis businesses…and State and City-County government employees…are spent in their home counties, further depleting our already cash-strapped economy. During Mayor Richard Lugar’s administration and probably before; City-County employees were required to live in Marion County to prevent this economic depletion.

    “Are States Outmoded…” State line designations are not the problem; mismanaged and outmoded local governments are the problem in states such as Indiana which are stuck in a time frame from the past century while other states have forged ahead. Consider our state system, 48 of the 50 states contiguous with one state located in another country and one a collection of islands many miles offshore as are our official territories. There will always be problems governing people in this melting pot nation; leadership at the federal level was designed to oversee that States Rights, not regional rights, did not violate the Constitution of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. All past administrations have attempted to conform to this system, designating responsibilities to elected officials; Trump has dumped his federal level responsibilities onto Governors and is firing Inspector Generals who oversee his actions to cover them up. And Rudy Giuliani is now his “cyber czar”; praise the Lord and pass the ammunition on that appointment.

  4. Pascal writes, “Think about Indiana and the problems caused by the outsized influence of the rural areas on state government.”

    There are plenty of examples of this “influence” where red states have republican governors but have large metropolitan regions within them who’ve elected democratic mayors. Atlanta within Georgia had issues during the pandemic as well as Indianapolis within Indiana.

    Could you imagine Trump or a GOP president trying to have federal control over these large epicenters?

    There is no doubt many of our “systems” are outdated, but I would not want even to consider reorganizing around economic centers until our governing system has been addressed. Capitalism and capitalists already control our governance in this country. Placing more emphasis on large capitalist centers would be giving even more power to the capitalists.

    Also, as we start addressing climate change in this country, mass commuting long distances to work makes no sense whatsoever. Our current forced model of work at home should be studied by universities to see if there are ways to restructure our economy with consideration to work-life balance. If a worker is commuting 2 hours a day to work and then working for 8.5 hours in an office, then there is little productive time with the family. This builds up enormous stress within the individual.

    They don’t call us the Prozac nation without reason.

  5. Not on the subject, but I wish the lawyers present could tell me:

    Could or should Biden sue Donald Trump Jr for slander over the Instagram of Biden and an alligator with “See you later, Alligator.” “In a while, pedophile.” Jr. backed down and labelled it a “joke.” But he started something vile and it’s out there now.

    Can actor Bill Pullman or 20th Century Fox or someone sue President Trump for copyright violation for retweeting someone else’s creation? The clip from “Independence Day” with Trump’s face replacing Bill Pullman’s for the rousing rallying cry as the heroic jet pilot-President leads the fight against the invaders?

    Trump wields law suits as a weapon, could it be turned against him this time?

  6. Indianapolis is the 15th largest city in the United States and is larger than Louisville. I would think it would be its own region.

  7. Peggy said, “We are, at our core, a very parochial people.”
    Exactly! There are way too many people in these (barely) United States who, consciously or not think of their state as their “country” in the tradition of Jefferson and Madison. A large number of the Second Amendment fanatics who collect their guns to protect themselves from the “gummint” (and who obviously don’t understand the concept of drones, air support, and tanks), as well as a good many of the reptiles now inhabiting #45’s swamp, hate the federal government. Any attempt at taking away their “country” would result in even more threats of violence or actual violence.
    While it might be beneficial in the long run, there are few in the US who care about the “long run.”

  8. Trying to get real….the issue of arbitrary states is small compared to the maze of counties, towns, townships, etc. whose existence vary wildly across our country. These cause, likely, massive inefficiencies, duplications of effort, strange critical gaps, etc.

    There have been excellent examples of working on this via mergers, partnerships, etc. The Federal government could nudge such efforts via its requirements/criteria for Federal money to do local projects.

  9. Good morning Sheila!

    This has been a conundrum for a very long time, some of us have been writing about this problem for several decades! Now, myself, I am not an expert by any stretch. But, I like to read, I like to self educate, and I love research and history. And one of the things I found fascinating years ago, was the amount of donor states out there, and the amount of welfare states! States that do not pull their weight concerning the federal government, and states that have an undue burden on its citizen taxpayers! Much to the detriment of quality of life in those states that give more than they take.

    For instance, I am going to post something from the Atlantic!

    The WalletHub analysts essentially asked how much each state receives back as a return on its federal income-tax investment. They compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia on three metrics: 1) federal spending per capita compared with every dollar paid in federal income taxes; 2) the percentage of a state’s annual revenue that comes from federal funding; and 3) the number of federal employees per capita. The third measure received only half the weight of each of the others in the calculation.

    What the resulting map shows is that the most “dependent states,” as measured by the composite score, are Mississippi and New Mexico, each of which gets back about $3 in federal spending for every dollar they send to the federal treasury in taxes. Alabama and Louisiana are close behind.

    If you look only at the first measure—how much the federal government spends per person in each state compared with the amount its citizens pay in federal income taxes—other states stand out, particularly South Carolina: The Palmetto State receives $7.87 back from Washington for every $1 its citizens pay in federal tax. This bar chart, made from WalletHub’s data, reveals the sharp discrepancies among states on that measure.

    On the other side of this group, folks in 14 states, including Delaware, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, and Ohio, get back less than $1 for each $1 they spend in taxes.

    It’s not just that some states are getting way more in return for their federal tax dollars, but the disproportionate amount of federal aid that some states receive allows them to keep their own taxes artificially low. That’s the argument WalletHub analysts make in their 2014 Report on Best and Worst States to Be a Taxpayer.

    And I definitely realize that some states are a microcosm of the entire inequity in this country. As you mentioned, Indiana! Areas like Indianapolis generate a huge portion of Indiana’s tax revenue, but don’t get that much of a benefit. Because that revenue is taken away and sent to areas who have a disproportionate amount of influence due to gerrymandering!

    Where I live, Illinois gets much less than a dollar for every dollar it sends to the federal government. That money goes to states like the above-mentioned South Carolina, and many of the other Southern states. Even Indiana receives approximately $2 from the federal government for every dollar that they send the federal government.

    An example of the inequity, I’ve been disabled since 2009, I was electrocuted and fell off of a utility pole, approximately 100 feet up, and broke my back and legs. Does that stop the state from raising my property taxes? My property taxes have gone from $4500. 3 years ago, to over $9000 this year! It doesn’t do well for your budget and a fixed income. So the things that we could enjoy a couple of years ago, are now off the table permanently. And let’s not even talk about federal income tax and state income tax! And because I own my home and have a pension, I am not eligible for food assistance, or Medicaid, although Medicare is okay.

    How do you level the playing field? These southern states like to throw their weight around, but use other people’s money to do it. Just like Donald Trump said, he loves to spend other people’s money! It’s an extremely flawed system, it always has been, but because of modernization, and areas of higher education, those who are welfare states, are only going to get worse as the last few vestiges of production, machinery and automobiles, pipe and conduit, move out of this country. Now, when technology and technical production starts to increase, these states are on the outside looking in, so they’ll be getting a larger cut from the federal government than they are receiving now. Putting even a larger burden on donor states and the citizens that pay taxes in those states.

    There needs to be in and of taxpayer supported assistance to these corporations on top of everything else, if they want to have a full service and protection of the American government and its workers, then they have to pay their fair share along with everyone else.

    It shouldn’t be that the government takes every morsel they can squeeze out of taxpayers, and then force those taxpayers into food assistance programs and others. I wish I could take advantage of some of that myself. But they would rather tax people off of their properties and then sell those properties for a profit, not very American now is it? Or, maybe it is very American, because this is nothing new.

    Federal excise taxes are not fair either, and corporations get away with murder concerning excise taxes, thereby shifting the burden on governments favorite commodity, citizen taxpayers!

    So, once again, states that have a lot of production, a lot of educated and high paid workers, get a shiv in the back by the federal government, and because of loopholes, the other states get a pass.

    The system is so inequitable and broken, it seems like it’s going to have to completely crash and burn before anything is done to rectify the problem. I have ideas, but, I don’t know if getting rid of states and using regional production zones would solve the problem, it seems it would just be the same issue with states just on a much larger scale.

    I guess I’ve said enough, this comment is long enough nobody’s going to read it anyway, LOL!

  10. Thanks, Sheila. I’ve never had an agent so I appreciate the prominent mention today. You’ll never get rich on commissions from my presentations. But it’s nice to have representation.
    As for government realignment, Hoosiers need not fear the end of state basketball tourneys. States in their entirety could be grouped into regions that already exist. The Midwest or Great Lakes. The Far West or Pacific. Alaska and Hawaii would probably remain unattached. No increase in the number of governmental units would be necessary as we could consolidate counties while we blend cities and towns into counties. There would be no change in representation in D.C.
    But, my friend, be cautious advocating for any my thoughts that appear as easily as dandruff.

  11. Could or should Biden sue Donald Trump Jr for slander over the Instagram of Biden and an alligator with “See you later, Alligator.” “In a while, pedophile.” Jr. backed down and labelled it a “joke.” But he started something vile and it’s out there now.
    YES, he should absolutely sue him!

  12. Achieving regional government doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

    Individual governing entities can agree voluntarily to cooperate with each other informally or formally all the time or at special times and do so without sacrifice of existing boundaries, one iteration of which we are seeing during this pandemic. Necessity is a mother.

    The need seems more dire to me to get a grip nationally on what Federalism means in all its practical permutations in the USA.

    How can a society be governed without a binding flowchart? As well as a flexible flowchart? What does the flowchart look like during depression? Recession? Pandemic? War? Uprising? Normalcy?

    As things go now, every situation incites more argument about flowchart authority than about resolving the situation. Our systemless system seems awkward, backward, inept, counterproductive, anarchic…

    and every emergency creates a new struggle for power in which only the most brutal of us gain anything. If I am talented at brutality, why shouldn’t I incite emergency situations during which I could climb another rung or two on the power ladder?

    The Constitution, you say; it’s our flowchart.

    Nope. The Constitution is the rule book for a continuous war over the absence of a flowchart. And on and on we go…deeper and deeper into anarchy.

  13. “Could or should Biden sue Donald Trump Jr for slander over the Instagram of Biden and an alligator with “See you later, Alligator.” “In a while, pedophile.” Jr. backed down and labelled it a “joke.” But he started something vile and it’s out there now.” From MG
    YES, he should absolutely sue him!

  14. One aspect of the current state/federal organization that I hadn’t considered previous to the pandemic is the state government as a backup to the federal government in case it fails to do its job. That definitely happened here in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic.

    One gross dysfunction that new state boundaries could address is the anti-democratic nature of the Senate. In the present obsolete organization empty land gets a large say in the federal government due to two senators per state.

    Another aspect though which is almost always happens when the human race tries to collaborate on important changes is the transition. The process of starting here and getting to a much different there is something we fail spectacularly at in almost every collaborative change.

    Back in the day our founders had much less here to defend and were spectacularly willing and able to compromise to find agreement and navigate around sticky wickets. While that came up with hybrid solutions that disappointed the founders at the time and virtually everybody affected after that time it did allow progress.

    Considering the present pandemic of extremism I think that this change will be and must be shelved in the face of other important issues that are much more existentially essential now. Improvement progress always has to take a back seat to survival progress and that’s where we are these days.

  15. A pandemic lends itself to the idea of economic regionalism since the virus knows no boundaries, but there are many more issues than the virus that cloud the idea, like custom, ingrained sense of belonging (Hoosier, et al), and laws, protocols and practices in place that would be subject to uprooting (and to which established interest groups would never agree). I also agree with Todd’s suggestion that giving capitalists even a greater say to feather their own nests via such regionalism is a non-starter. There have to be better ways to effect an efficient regionalism than meddling with its political underpinning.

    As to Sheila’s lament that out of towners show up for big money paychecks but contribute little to the cities’ economies is a problem that can be fixed. Work from home and/or have the feds come up with bullet trains or rapid transit to reduce pressure on the environment and, as many other jurisdictions do, pass a city income tax so that out of town residents who work in cities do in fact contribute to the economies of cities. The 25% or so of cities’ properties not taxable due to definition as government and charitable organizations can be partially rectified by taxing certain 501s and increasing the assessments of commercial properties (Mariott et al). I understand that some if not all of my suggestions (and I have more) would not be politically popular and perhaps impossible to make happen given a super majority of Republicans in the legislature, but you start from where you are, as in, why should poor people trapped in large cities subsidize rich five-day-a-week workers who contribute little to nothing to municipalities like Indianapolis?

  16. Chores used to all be done at home.

    Then we collaboratively decided we would individually move our bodies to chores that were necessarily situated away from home.

    Then more and more chores became information handling rather than service or stuff providing and high speed packet switched digital networks like the internet allowed those chores to be done at home.

    That’s a good thing for now because we are at the end of the road when it comes to moving bodies around.

  17. MG @ 9:01am: Re: Biden suing Trump, Jr.

    The facile answer is “Yes,” of course! Biden can sue Trump, Jr. So far, the Courts in this Country are still open and anyone who can scribble something down on paper (or these days file electronically), with or without the assistance of an attorney, and pay the filing fee can sue whoever they want to. Doesn’t mean that you will prevail in winning the lawsuit. Of course, without the allegation of some facts and legal grounds that at least facially, if true, would prove your case, that law suit would stand a good chance of being dismissed out-of-hand.

    The actual question for us attorneys (in my case long retired) in a situation such as Biden’s is two-fold. First, does he have provable and meritorious legal grounds to support a defamation law suit against Trump, Jr.? Second, (because this is all about politics) what would the foreseeable optics and possible ramifications on Biden’s campaign and chances of being elected?

    The answer to the first question, IMO, is that Biden might have a good facts and legal basis for suing and winning a libel/defamation suit against Trump, Jr. In 1964, in the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court held that in light of the provisions of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution protecting the rights to Freedom of Speech, a public person, a public official, or a person running for public office not only has to prove that the defendant made a false defamatory statement about them, which is the legal standard that normal, non-public citizens need to prove to win a defamation suit, but public officials or those running for public office have to additionally prove that the defamatory statement(s) were made with “actual malice.” i.e., the defendant either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true. I think Biden would stand a good chance of proving either and/or both.

    As far as I’m aware (and the media response to Trump, Jr’s “joke” seems to reinforce the fact), although Biden has now been publicly accused of having committed sexual assault on an adult women [Tara Reade was 29 at the time she alleges Biden assaulted her], I have never heard any claims or allegations, whatsoever, having been made against Biden that he is a pedophile, i.e., sexually assaulted an underage person. Not that either of them should be contenanced, there is a great deal of factual and defamatory difference between being alleged to be a pedophile and having sexually assaulted an adult. Pedophiles are rightly viewed as being particularly depraved and vile human beings by most people (Ask any con in prison how child molesters are regarded and treated in prisons versus a rapist. Even criminals have some standards).

    Thus, it would be my opinion –FWIW — that Biden would have a good case that Trump Jr. either knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true. So, Biden may well have a good legal defamation claim against Trump, Jr. [POS Trump, Jr.: Ha, Ha, Ha “Just Joking.”]

    The answer to the second question is not a legal question. It is a political question, which I’m probably not all that well qualified to answer. My gut feeling is that Biden would be stupid to sue Trump, Jr. in a middle of a campaign for President. It would, first of all, just give more publicity to Trump, Jr. and his BS and false claim. Secondly, the law suit wouldn’t be heard or resolved until long after the election. If I were advising Biden, I would advise him to just treat Trump, Jr. as the ignorant, worthless, entitled POS that he is. In other words, don’t dignify or credit him by even acknowledging him. While the Trumpite cultists won’t think so, hopefully most decent folks will find Trump, Jr. and his false claims detestable. I know I do; even before this incident.

    As to MG’s question about the use of a movie clip with Trump’s face superimposed on it. I don’t know much about copyright law. I do know that lots of song writers and artists have issued cease and desist orders to politicians, included Trump, to stop using their copyrighted work at rallies and in commercials without their permission. It seems logical that the same would apply to a copyrighted movie, especially if the work is being altered in some fashion not approved by the copyright holder. There is, however, also something called the “Fair Use Doctrine.” I’d defer to someone who knows more about copyright law than I.

    In the end, as I always use to say when someone at a social event asked a legal question. All free legal advice is worth exactly what you paid for it. If the advice was correct, you got quite the bargain. If it was wrong, you didn’t pay a cent for it.

  18. I used to know an old judge whose office I adorned who told me that defamation suits are like a bucket of —-, that the more you stirred them the more they stunk. I am well aware of the actual malice required by the Sullivan case where public figures are involved, and while Biden is certainly a public figure the concept of actual malice to be defined in a particular case is a slippery concept. My advice: Ignore both Trump and his progeny; don’t give them the pleasure of noticing their borderline criminal conduct and keeping the bucket stirred. Let (political) nature take its course via twitter where Biden aficionados will give the Trumps their due.

  19. The say that history is written by the winners which is another strong reason to vote in Nov and vote blue no matter who.

  20. Calving off the Calumet Region and attaching it to Illinois might make sense, except that many of its people moved to Indiana because they did not want to live in Illinois and they would probably oppose being wrapped up in it.

    Indiana has also been the “cheap and dirty” state, to the point that ComEd built a coal-fired plant in Hammond but sent the electricity generated to Illinois and the Chicago-based industrialists swallowed up Lake County’s lakeshore because they wanted to keep Chicago’s lakeshore free of industrial blight. The refineries and steel mills might not appreciate being roped into Illinois.

    Extracting the Chicago metro from Indiana and Illinois would replace an indigo state and a magenta state with two hard red states and a blue state. (Seriously, rural Illinois is deeply conservative.)

    Finally, the Democratic Party of Indiana deserves plenty of blame for letting the state go Republican. They let Evan Bayh waltz into one Senate race after he waltzed out of another. Donnelly tried to appeal to Trumpers but in doing so gave his Democratic supporters a reason to stay home. Daniels won in 2004 because he was the candidate who bothered to campaign in the Region.

  21. Morton is right. BUT, they are not going anywhere. A federal union was not the best form of government then or now. But it was the base we had. He and I have talked about the fact, contrary to the national government, states are unitary forms of government. In the federal system power emanates from the states upward. In the states, individually, power rests entirely with state and flows downward. There is where efficiency, reduced cost and effective application of powers can be achieved. For example: The unitary UK has a national police force. and uniform laws. Alas , our stat s stratify government powers in a hodgepodge of local jurisdictions. I pay for city, county and state policing. It is necessary to be aware and beware of obscure local ordinances and regulations. In the current virus pandemic situation we not only have 50 states, but the unitary state governments, allowing a myriad of local standards. All of this in disorganized resistance to a mindless, fast moving and constantly mutating threat. No problem there?

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