Ten Miles Square


September 21, 2012 10:00 AM Jeffrey Frankel Explains the Real Reason that Republicans Support Sugar Subsidies

By Andrew Gelman

Jeffrey Frankel, a distinguished economist, public servant, and expert on international trade, made a common but, I hope, avoidable statistical error in a recent column. Frankel wrote:

Compared to “blue-staters,” those who live in red states exhibit less responsibility, on average, in their personal behavior: they are less physically fit, less careful in their sexual behavior, more prone to inflict harm on themselves and others through smoking and drinking, and more likely to receive federal subsidies … Blue-state residents, who tend to be more educated and have higher incomes than residents of red states …

This is all fine, but Frankel is making a common, and important, mistake, which one might call “personifying the states.” In fact, as we describe in detail in our book Red State Blue State, differences between state averages do not necessarily reflect individual differences. For example, blue state residents have higher incomes, on average, than red state residents; but Democratic (“blue”) voters are poorer, on average, than Republican (“red”) voters. Even Mitt Romney knows that!

Similarly, it is misleading to write, “Statistical analysis shows that states where more residents suffer from obesity, often because they get less physical exercise and eat more junk food, tend to vote Republican. To illustrate, a mere 1% decrease in a state’s obesity on average is estimated to raise the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters from 1.00 to 1.07”—an argument that conflates individuals and states and confuses correlation with causation.

Frankel’s mistake is an easy one to make; others who have confused state-level with aggregate patterns include respected commentators Nicholas Kristof, Michael Barone, and Tucker Carlson. Seeing this mistake made by a leading scholar and former member of the Council of Economic Advisors has motivated me to post on this topic once again.

P.S. See here for the sugar-subsidy story.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.


  • robert waldmann on September 27, 2012 4:04 PM:

    Yes the old ecological fallacy. Odd that you left David "Red State Blue State" Brooks off your list. I thought he was the textbook example.

    The Red and the Black.

    Similarly you can prove that African Americans are Republican since of the 6 states with the highest proportion of African Americans are ruby red (the exception is my native state Maryland which I think is the most Democratic state in the union -- back when the solid South was Democratic it was Southern and now that the solid South is Republican it is central).

    On the other hand I don't think the state by state correlation of conservative attitudes towards sex and regretted reproduction is just the ecological fallacy. First conservative attitudes towards sex interfere more with contraception than sex hence more accidental babies. Second lives messed up by premature pregnancy drive home the fact that sex is dangerous leading to more conservative attitudes towards sex. Those who haven't defeated the Devil in their flesh with contraceptives (including condoms) fear him more.

    More generally self destructive people tend not to vote much and tend to convince voters that individuals bring trouble on themselves increasing fears of adverse incentive effects of assistance and reducing the sense that fairness demands we provide assistance to the poor.

    OK I'll be honest now. Did the paragraph in the middle hide the fact that I am thinking a lot about race ? I am saying racism is key to the survival of the Republican party in its present form (I never doubt that) but I fear that I personally am racist and let it show. The courtesy of no reply is requested.

    Omigod the first word in the reCAPTCHA is emancipation. Is the internet on to me or what ?