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Exceptional Washington

Summary:
I just returned from a 9-day vacation in the Pacific Northwest, which has triggered a few thoughts about what seems to me to be America’s best state. My wife and I spent most of our time hiking in the Cascade Mountains, which have absolutely spectacular scenery. I’m not sure why Mt. Baker is not a national park. And next to San Francisco, Seattle may have the best setting of any major American city. The only reason I don’t live up there is that I prefer hot sunny weather. Washington is a very “blue” state, but in some respects is quite unlike most other blue states. For instance, its population grew by 14.6% during the 2010s (same as Florida), which is double the national rate. Colorado was other only other blue state with that sort of fast growth, and Colorado is

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I just returned from a 9-day vacation in the Pacific Northwest, which has triggered a few thoughts about what seems to me to be America’s best state.

My wife and I spent most of our time hiking in the Cascade Mountains, which have absolutely spectacular scenery. I’m not sure why Mt. Baker is not a national park. And next to San Francisco, Seattle may have the best setting of any major American city. The only reason I don’t live up there is that I prefer hot sunny weather.

Washington is a very “blue” state, but in some respects is quite unlike most other blue states. For instance, its population grew by 14.6% during the 2010s (same as Florida), which is double the national rate. Colorado was other only other blue state with that sort of fast growth, and Colorado is considerably less blue than Washington. (I count Nevada and Arizona as “purple”, despite Biden’s wins.) The only northern states with faster population growth were Idaho and North Dakota, which both started from a very low base.

This fast growth partly reflects the fact that NIMBYism is much less entrenched in Washington than in other parts of the West Coast. Housing prices are even higher here in Orange County CA, but unlike Seattle we have very little new construction, and hence very little population growth. In Seattle, one sees high-rise apartments and condos being built at a rapid rate, and its suburbs are also expanding.

More generally, Washington also has an interesting mix of left and right libertarian policies. It has legalized pot and physician-assisted suicide, and is unlikely to follow Texas in banning abortion. On the other hand, unlike other blue states it has no state income tax and (AFAIK) its gun restrictions are less strict that many other large blue states.

Its corporate sector is also exceptional, having produced Microsoft and Amazon. At various times in recent years, the world’s two richest men lived in Washington.

Washington is also exceptional in the way it handled Covid. There are some less populous states with a lower death rate, but among larger states Washington really stands out. It’s the 13th largest state in population, and yet its death rate is by far the lowest among the top 25. What makes this even more surprising is that early in the pandemic Washington had more Covid fatalities than any other state.

Visiting Washington from California, I was immediately struck by how much more Covid cautious the population is. AFAIK, this is not due to major differences in government regulation between the two states, rather ordinary people enforce these norms by reminding you to wear a mask even if just going from a restaurant table to the restroom.  (Perhaps Northern California is more like Washington.)

In contrast, when I visited Arizona I found the public to be somewhat more lax than in California. Not surprisingly, Washington has a far lower fatality rate than California, while Arizona has a much higher fatality rate.  Look at the difference in deaths between Washington and Arizona (which is 14th in population).

Exceptional Washington

Some of this may be demographics, but not all.  Masks and social distancing work.

[Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean the Washington approach is “better”, as there are both costs and benefits to Covid caution. FWIW, I’m in the camp that believes that 1/3 of Americans take Covid too seriously and 1/3 don’t take in seriously enough. And again, I believe that differences between states mostly reflect culture, not government regulation.]

If I could go back to age 21 and start my adult life over again, then Seattle is the place I’d wish to live.

Update:  Perhaps the most exceptional fact of all is that Seattle’s new mass transit line came in under budget.

PS.  Thanks to Gordon and Sheena for their kind hospitality.

PPS.  Here’s a picture I took hiking near Mt. Baker:

Exceptional Washington

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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