Opinion

Bill Maher Thinks the South Envies the Blue States. Actually, It's the Other Way Around | Opinion

“The flyover states have become the passed-over states,” Bill Maher opined in his closing soliloquy of his HBO show this past Friday. “That’s why red state voters are so pissed off. They don’t hate us, they want to be us. They want to go to the party.”

Maher’s rant was proof that he needs to get out more often and travel the country. Or at least have someone on his staff read the paper now and then.

The state where he grew up and graduated high school, New Jersey, led the nation in net outflow migration last year. With Illinois, Connecticut and New York rounding out the top four states leading the nation in losing population.

Blue state residents are fleeing the never-ending, decades long spending party their home states have been throwing, and defecting to lower tax – and more fiscally responsible - red states in the South and Sun Belt.

And that’s not according to some conservative think tank. It’s from the latest annual United Van Lines report. And those folks know a thing or two about where people are moving from. And to.

“Who needs a house out in Hackensack?” Billy Joel asked in his hit 1977 song Movin’ Out. “Is that all you get for your money?” Joel was on to something decades before the exodus from the Garden State became a reality.

In a poll conducted by Monmouth University not long ago, 53 percent of New Jersey residents said they would like to move from the state at some point. Among those making more than $100,000 a year, a whopping 60 percent wanted to move.

Is that the party Bill Maher’s crew was referring to?

If Maher’s team had bothered to do a Google search, they would have learned that the beating heart of red state America – the South - has experienced remarkable growth since 2000.

Indeed, between 2000 and 2010, that increase was reflected in stark changes in the electoral college. Texas picked up four seats and Florida two, while New York and Ohio each lost two. Other gainers included Georgia and South Carolina, and losers included Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

“The center of population has moved south in the most extreme way we’ve ever seen in history,” Robert Groves, director of the Census Bureau, said at a news conference back in 2010 when those electoral college numbers were announced.

In 1960, New York had 45 electoral votes, New Jersey had 17, and Massachusetts had 16. In 2016, NY’s had shriveled to 29 electoral votes, New Jersey 14, and Massachusetts 11.

If the party is anywhere in America, it’s Texas, where the electoral college has grown from 24 in 1960 to 38 in 2016. Florida’s numbers have grown from 10 to 29, and Georgia’s from 12 to 16. All were southern states, the last time I checked the map.

Why no one is writing about this exodus from the blue states is anyone’s guess, but it’s happening. I know. I’m one of those American refugees who fled bad blue state government policy.

When I told my friends in New Jersey nearly fifteen years ago that I was packing my bags and heading South, they thought I’d lost my mind. Why, they wondered, would I give up the food, shopping, and close proximity to New York City to live anywhere else, especially a place like Oxford, Miss.? I might as well have told them I was moving to Mogadishu.

I explained that we have electricity in Mississippi. And indoor plumbing. We have dentists, the internet and cable TV, I told them. And I travel a lot, and Memphis Airport has planes. And a decent-sized American company, FedEx, calls the area home.

I told them about the quality of life in Oxford, and how far a dollar stretches. When I showed them pictures of my house, and got around to my property taxes, things get somber. My mortgage payment for an equivalent home in New Jersey would be at least twice as much, and my property taxes would be five or six times what I pay in Mississippi. That savings from the home ownership differential alone could fund most American retirements. And a whole lot of fun, too.

When I reminded my friends from New Jersey about the bills they’d be inheriting from the state public pension unions, and that they’d be paying those outstanding bills through ever escalating property, income and sales taxes, things got downright gloomy.

Having disposed of the economic arguments, I knew that one question lurked: “Okay, but what’s it like living with a bunch of slow-talking, gun-toting, Bible-thumping racists?”

My friends didn’t use those words, but it’s what they were thinking. I knew because I thought the same thing about the South before I moved here. Most of what Americans know about the South comes from TV and movies. Think Hee-Haw meets Mississippi Burning meets The Help and you get the picture.

Those prejudices bore little resemblance to the reality I encountered when I moved south. I fell in love with the place. With the pace of life, for openers. And the speed of life. Things got done, but people actually have time for one another. And know one another. For better or worse, but better mostly.

Though I’d never owned a firearm, I learned that the locals took personal protection into their own hands, knowing that a call to a county sheriff wasn’t a solid defense strategy. I also learned how much fun it was to shoot stuff, from targets to tin cans to turkeys.

The Bible thumpers proved to be more caricature than anything. The people I met didn’t impose their religion on me. They tried to live by the standards of their faith. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. But the pervasive pursuit of those standards made the South a better place to live.

It was on the race front that I was most surprised. Yes, the South had a painful and tragic history. And yes, I encountered a few bigots who didn’t worry about using the “n” word, and longed for a return to the 1950s. But they proved to be exceptions.

Instead, I saw blacks and whites interacting day-to-day in ways I never saw up north. Indeed, in the suburban town where I grew up in New Jersey, I could count the African American residents on one hand. The same is true of the town Bill Maher grew up in, which is a few miles from my hometown.

But in my small Southern town, my daughter’s eighth-grade class is thoroughly integrated — more than 20 percent of her class is African American.

And it isn’t just white folks like me who’ve been heading south over the past few decades: it’s black people, too. Indeed, the percentage of the nation’s African-American population living in the South hit its highest point in half a century, as more black people moved out of declining cities in the Midwest and Northeast.

“Black Americans are fleeing the crime and decay of their big-city neighborhoods for greener pastures in the suburbs, in smaller cities or even back in the now-booming southern states that their grandparents left in the last century,” wrote Marcus Gee recently in the Globe and Mail.

The epicenter of the nearly epic reverse migration, Gee noted, is Chicago. “The Midwestern city, third biggest in the United States, saw its black population drop by about 180,000 in the decade after 2000,” he continued. “The Greater Chicago area has lost close to 46,000 black residents since 2010. Atlanta has replaced it as the metropolitan area with the second-largest black population in the U.S., after New York.”

But it isn’t just white and black people fleeing blue states for red ones. Companies are heading south, too. In 2015, Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz USA announced it was moving its headquarters from Montvale, NJ—just miles from where Bill Maher grew up—to Sandy Springs, Ga. And it brought nearly 1,000 people along with it, at an average salary of nearly $80,000 per worker.

That news came on the heels of a series of corporate defections from the Garden State. Hertz, the car-rental company, moved its headquarters—and its 550 jobs—from New Jersey to Florida, and Sealed Air Corporation (the bubble-wrap maker) moved its headquarters and 1,300 jobs from Elmwood Park, New Jersey to Charlotte, North Carolina. And there are countless others like it.

Those businesses are fleeing New Jersey for the same reason so many residents are fleeing: the exorbitant taxes. New Jersey ranked near the bottom of the pack for individuals, and dead last in the Tax Foundation’s 2018 State Tax Business Climate Index.

“We think the infrastructure in the States has changed,” Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Mercedes, told reporters. “The South is much more relevant than it used to be. We think it is a new start, a rejuvenation of our company to make the move.”

Relevant indeed. Back in 1993, Mercedes thought the South was so relevant that they built their first-ever assembly plant outside of Germany in—of all places—Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“Twenty years ago, the question at Daimler was, ‘Tusca…where?’” Andreas Renschler, who served as the plant’s first CEO, said on the day of the plant’s 20th anniversary, in 2013. “Today, our most talented people are waiting in line to work here.” In 2012, the plant shipped 5 billion dollars worth of Alabama-made vehicles to 135 markets across the globe. Half the vehicles sold by Mercedes in the U.S. were made there.

That kind of story has been playing itself out in the red state South over the past few decades if Bill Maher had dared to ask. Toyota has been cranking out Corolla’s in their Tupelo Mississippi plant—more than 500,000 since the plant opened in 2011.

Boeing assembles its Dreamliner in South Carolina, and BMW has invested heavily in the Palmetto State, too. Huntsville, Alabama has been the aerospace capital of America for quite some time, and not nearly enough Americans know the stories of the miraculous growth the state of Texas continues to enjoy. Seven of the top 15 fastest growing cities in America are in The Lone Star State alone.

If the south is so backward, and the red states Maher loves to ridicule are so hateful and stupid, why are so many people moving there? And the most sophisticated manufacturing enterprises in the world, too? What caused this migration of capital—the human, industrial, and political varieties—that Maher either doesn’t know about. Or ignores?

Ask any transplant and they’ll cheerfully run down the same laundry list of items I did—and in a New York Minute.

Ask transplanted business owners and they’ll tell you they like investing their capital in states where union bosses and trial lawyers don’t run the show, and where tax burdens are low. They also want a workforce that is affordable and well-trained. And that doesn’t see them as the enemy.

In short, policy matters. So, too, does culture.

The fact is, white people and black people from all over America, and businesses from all over the world, are heading to a part of the country where taxes are low, unions are irrelevant, and people love their guns. They’re investing in the South with their capital, and with an even more precious asset—their lives and their families.

In the downtown square of Oxford sits a bronze statue of our most famous storyteller, William Faulkner. “The past is never dead,” he once wrote. “In fact, it’s not even past.”

Those of us who’ve moved to the red state South disagree. We see something here that Faulkner, Bill Maher, the coastal and entertainment elites, and many writers, journalists and academics don’t.

The future.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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