For political junkies the debate between Rob Christensen, columnist for the News & Observer, and John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, is just delicious. Hood argues that North Carolina is not exceptional in its growth and is actually quite similar to its Southern neighbors. Christensen calls it revisionist history and that, in fact, North Carolina has outpaced most other Southern states for decades, if not for most of the past century.

I obviously side with Rob in this spat. Hood’s argument relies on a very narrow measure to look at the progress of the state. He relies almost solely on GDP and per capita income. His analysis is about numbers, not people.

Coincidentally, Neil Irwin, the senior economics writer for the New York Times, wrote a piece about the latest Census Bureau report on how well Americans are faring economically. The piece is titled “You Can’t Feed a Family with GDP.” As Irwin notes, GDP says nothing about how the money from growth is distributed or how it affects families.

And that’s the problem with John’s analysis. While we may not have significantly exceeded our neighbors’ GDP or per capita income, the benefits were distributed much more evenly. As Irwin notes, “The rubber-meets-road measure of whether the economy is working for the mass of Americans is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their pockets and what they can buy with that money.”

Using those measures, we have consistently and substantially outpaced our neighbors. Our median income has been higher for decades until the economic crash. On almost every quality of life measure, our families have fared better. That’s because of the political choices our leaders have made. 

Now, as we try to move out of the recession, we’re seeing an unequal recovery. Our per capita income is increasing at a healthy rate but our median income is not. So far, the benefits of our sluggish recovery are going to the people who got hurt the least. 

So if the most important measure of prosperity is the rate of economic growth, then we’ve not done substantially better than our Southern neighbors. If the most important measures are the strength of the middle class and health and welfare of our citizens, we’ve done significantly better.

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