Speaking last night at the Democratic National Convention, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick painted a rosy portrait of Massachusetts under his watch and a bleak portrait of the state of the state at the end of Mitt Romney’s tenure. As Dylan Matthews points out, Patrick’s bragging on his own tenure is fine but Massachusetts was great during the Romney years too.
I would only go further and say that Romney’s own bragging about the alleged MA turnaround under his watch involved selling short his predecessors. One of the main reasons Romney was able to win in 2002 is that the state had been successfully governed by a series of moderate Republican governors—William Weld, Paul Celucci, and then Jane Swift who got bogged down in some non-policy controversies. That string of solid governance takes us back to the early nineties. And it’s worth recalling that Michael Dukakis didn’t snag the 1988 Democrat nomination based on his incredible personal charisma. Those were the years of the “Massachusetts Miracle.”
The real truth, as noted in this great Andrew Gelman post from five years ago, is that there isn’t that much change over time in states’ economic well-being. All things considered the best predictor of how rich a state was in 2000 was simply how rich it was in 1929. There are some exceptions to this. Virginia and to a lesser extent Georgia, for example, have really been able to pull away from the southern poverty pack. Rhode Island used to be about as rich as Massachusetts and has stagnated terribly. But Massachusetts and Connecticut have always been rich and Arkansas and Mississippi have always been poor.
Governors take office at different points in the business cycle and that sometimes makes their records look unusually good or unusually bad, but the truth is that it’s very difficult to alter to the long-term trajectory of a state’s economic fortune. That’s primarily because people can move. If Mississippi starts doing a much better job of preparing its students to succeed in higher education, a lot of those people will probably leave and move to higher-income states like Connecticut or Massachusetts. Indeed, neither Patrick nor Romney was born in Massachusetts. Rather, like many of the state’s most successful individuals they moved to the Bay State from elsewhere to go to Harvard and then stuck around. But creating Harvard was a smart public policy initiative undertaken in the seventeenth century and not something anyone alive today can take credit for.