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Provoking Melancholy States in the State of New York

by on January 5, 2010

New Yorkers are miserable. But at least now we know why. Specifically, a state government that eats much of your paycheck is concurrently making you sad. The phenomenon of Empire State-based dejection has been analyzed before. Now, Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal has highlighted a Science magazine study that specifically claims people who can’t keep much of what they make are directly rendered disconsolate about it. As New York’s residents know quite well, that includes them:

The study finds that New Yorkers are the unhappiest people in America and their neighbors in Connecticut come in a close second, followed by Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, California, and Illinois.

Many forlorn-heavy states share political tendencies:

Eight of the ten happiest states lean right while eight of the ten unhappiest tilt left. While the study by no means proves that being liberal makes people unhappy, it does reflect some of the unfortunate implications of living in a blue state.

It’s not that liberals are naturally miserable people. Necessarily. That said, their policies do make humans gloomy. There’s one particular trend among depression-provoking, left-tilting states: they like your money and help themselves to it.

Considering how much New York’s crime rate has dropped and schools have improved in the last decade, taxes seem to overwhelm even these two critical factors in the happiness equation. According to the Tax Foundation 2008 analysis, three of the top five unhappiest states—New York, Connecticut and New Jersey—have the highest state-local tax burdens.

It’s too bad oh so selfish individuals are focused on keeping what they earn and rewarding themselves for their labors with little treats to get through life. The government would prefer for you and your comrades to alternately surrender and gladly fund state workers’ generous pensions and union-level salaries:

In states with high property, income, and sales taxes like New York, people have less money to spend on other things that make them happy. They have less money to spend on vacations, hobbies, home improvements, eating out and child care. Another problem may be that people receive a low return on their tax dollars.

The government could at least buy you something nice with your money:

The study’s authors note that people are least happy in states that impose high taxes but don’t provide matching public benefits (e.g. good highways to relieve congestion and reduce commute times). It’s in states where taxes disproportionately subsidize public employee pensions and entitlement programs, but don’t much improve the general public’s quality of life, that people are most unhappy.

This intuitively makes sense. If you’re paying more than a third of your income in taxes, as many New Yorkers do, then you expect to realize the benefits from your hard-earned tax dollars. You expect quality schools, good roads, low crime rates, and quick commutes. You expect your local and state governments to be responsive to your needs, not to the cash flows of entrenched public employee unions and other special interests.

But it should be painfully hard to justify high levies even if we can see that the state is buying worthwhile things. People have the right to expect that the government can pave roads and fight crime without confiscating an oppressive portion of incomes. Regardless, we’re not exactly seeing platinum-paved avenues and jet pack-equipped cops in return for the involuntary investment.  And inhabitants are fed up enough that they’re bailing:

Many liberal state governments like those in Albany, Trenton and Sacramento are spending more and more on entitlement programs and public employee pensions, racking up more and more debt, and imposing more and more taxes to pay for it all—while ignoring their taxpayers’ needs. Taxpayers, however, aren’t just getting unhappy. They’re getting out. United Van Lines’ 2009 annual study shows that New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois are among the states with the highest outbound migration while Alabama and Tennessee are among the states with the highest inbound migration.

People don’t cross intra-American borders permanently without cause: often, profligate states give them a push, and inertia carries them the rest of the way.

And personal sunniness only compensates for a finite level of darkness.  Even with a good attitude, environment plays a crucial part in one’s well-being. When conditions get rotten enough, many people simply find new surroundings.

That’s especially true when one gets ripped off for the privilege of living within a certain jurisdiction. No matter how onerous the federal burden becomes, there are always better options in competing states. If New York’s elected officials comprehended the value of free markets, their domain would naturally be in better shape on its own, not to mention relative to its 49 competitors for residents.

Unfortunately, Albany’s incumbents could wager that the people who don’t flee are actually pleased with the way things are. More likely, those that remain are at worst complacent non-voters; at best, they care for the state but want to improve it and see good things through. Everyone left behind should work to establish that they stayed by choice and yet remain unpleased. The prospect of saving money while simultaneously increasing happiness should provide ample motivation for citizens to pursue fixes.

In the meantime, if New York’s politicians can’t bother to minimize their role, they ought to use some of the money they seize to assuage residents’ troubles.  Namely, they could buy us Klonopin and Prozac, or at least ice cream and lager.  Such consumable remedies would help us cope with the apprehension and/or despondency caused by dealing with their policies.  Eh, never mind: they’d probably add a user fee and make us pick up our medicine at the DMV.

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