Will Wilkinson, Megan McArdle, Dave Weigel and I had a laconic little debate on Twitter yesterday about the USA Today article on the politicis of stimulus spending. Painful though it is to admit, 140 characters proved limiting! So we transferred over to the old-fashioned blog world, where Will commened on my last post:
I think you're right that the article does not really establish what it implies, which would require comparison to the Republican counterfactual, but what it implies is almost certainly true. If it isn't, and Obama failed to get more for districts with high concentrations of poor voters than these districts would have gotten under McCain -- even with the blank check of a big stimulus during a perceived economic crisis -- then he may be the most ineffectual Democratic president ever, and progressives ought to be pissed.
That's fair, but I think the claim that what the article implies "is almost certainly true" depends on what you think the article is implying. The controversial implication -- picked up by a good number of big conservative blogs -- is that Obama is handing out stimulus dollars as a reward for voting for him. That strikes me as intuitively false, but pretty much impossible to prove or falsify. (After all, it's a claim about Obama's intentions: how on earth would you know one way or the other?)
But I agree with Will: What is almost certainly true -- or just true -- is that counties that voted for Obama get more money than counties that voted for McCain. But my problem with the article is that I find this fact totally uncontroversial and unsurprising. You "almost certainly" could have figured this out back in February, when the stimulus bill was passed and signed. The reason: If you have a piece of legislation that distributes dollars through Medicaid or TANF or whatever, those dollars will go to low income-voters who support candidates who, in turn, support redistributive social services. After I wrote the post yesterday a couple of people referred me to some old work by Andrew Gelman, and I think this chart sums up the point ("less wealthy voters across all categories support Democrats") quite nicely:
This isn't a coincidence, much less a conspiracy! In all likelihood, this is just "democracy": voters support candidates that will advance their interests. It is not always the case that the interests of the voters are well served. But there's no need to get alarmed when they are.