Diary

A Harvard Ph.D. Totally Misses the Point About 'Red State Blues'

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I was recently chided by an editor when he asked me my opinion on one of my stories.  I told him how The Washington Post reported it: “WaPo went with ‘shocking’,” I emailed.

My phone immediately rang. “I don’t care what WaPo went with,” he said in an animated voice. “Listen, those people are just the same as you and me.

“I’ve been in those newsrooms.  Do you think they’re any better because they work at the New York Times or The Washington Post?” he drilled into me.

It was a good lesson.  Normally, I’d read a piece like Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’ “Talking Red State Blues” in the New York Times and throw stones at it, but not usually question the way it was reported.  After all, Stephens-Davidowitz is a regular New York Times contributor, with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard, and was a data scientist for Google.

I only have a minor in economics from the University of New Hampshire, and I’ve never worked for Google.  But I’m going to take Stephens-Davidowitz to task for his hypotheses of why “Red states”—which vote for Republicans—may harbor stigmas about seeking mental health for depression versus “Blue states.”

Using lots of Google data and charts, Stephens-Davidowitz shows that blue staters search for psychotherapists and similar counseling 54 percent more than red staters.  However, the likelihood that red or blue staters take antidepressant drugs is about equal.

His first thought was that psychotherapy is expensive and red staters are, overall, less well paid and less insured than blue staters.  He also noted that red staters are more likely to live in rural areas, less served by psychotherapists.  Yet both red and blue staters have similar statistics on Lasik eye surgery, plastic surgery and chiropractic care, so cost can’t be the overriding factor.

He concludes that “a lot of facts” are consistent with the stigma hypothesis, using celebrity behavior as a sort of yardstick of pycho-stigma.  At the blue end of the spectrum, there’s Woody Allen, the emperor of psychosis, while Chuck Norris and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson occupy the red end.

For each of the 500 celebrities, I did a Google search with his or her name followed by the word “therapist.” I then coded if any of the top 10 returning links showed them saying they were in therapy. This is a highly imperfect methodology. One problem: Some celebrities, like John Goodman, share their name with many therapists.

Even with this blunt methodology, a very strong, statistically significant relationship emerges. The more popular a celebrity is in blue states relative to red states, the more likely he or she is to have spoken of being in therapy.

So far, fair enough, data are data.

I’m surprised that a Ph.D. in economics could ignore something so basic as supply and demand, but I guess at Harvard, they’re too advanced to think of such pedestrian concepts.  If there are less psychotherapists in red states, yet just as many people suffering depression, then there would be a plethora of morose, suicidal individuals in red states, if stigma was the answer.

Stephens-Davidson says there is, but there isn’t.

Compared with blue states, red states have roughly 30 percent higher suicide rates and around 20 percent higher rates of major depression. Among many other factors, lack of therapy is probably playing a role in these outcomes.

The correlation between red states and suicide is weak, and much stronger explanations exist.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas, a very red state, has one of the lowest suicide rates in the country.  As does Georgia.  Louisiana and Nebraska are also below the national average.  Blue states Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon are way above the national average.

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The best correlation is likely found in geography and culture.  States with lots of Native American populations have high suicide rates, up to 10 times the national average.  That explains New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Wyoming and Alaska.  Remove these statistical outliers, and the red/blue difference is vanishingly small.

Then what explains the difference between high-density psychotherapy states and low-density states?

Supply and demand suggests an obvious answer.  If red state voters and blue state voters both suffer depression, the red state voters look to God to supply an answer and blue staters look to psychotherapists.

report on religiosity and income in the U.S. shows that red staters attend church more than blue staters.  This should not be a revelation to anyone familiar with people who “cling to their guns and religion.”

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Such an obvious conclusion doesn’t support the liberal narrative that religion can’t solve real people’s problems, so Stephens-Davidowitz simply ignores it.  In the liberal halls of Harvard, there cannot possibly be an explanation which includes a supernatural being who offers mercy, comfort, and radical life-change to people suffering from depression.

Examples abound.  Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, such as Teen Challenge’s claimed 75 percent success rate for drug addicts, liberals in Minnesota pulled funding from the organization because they oppose “proselytizing.”

Supply and demand:  people solve their problems by going to expensive, degreed counselors with comfortable couches, or they seek the Wonderful Counselor.

Thus, Stephens-Davidowitz’s “Red State Blues” puzzle is solved, and his hypothesis of stigma is disproved.  And as my editor reminded me, just because he writes for The New York Times, and I don’t, that doesn’t make him automatically right.

In this case, he was decidedly wrong.

P.S. I have nothing against Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.  He’s not the stereotype of a trolling leftist elite snob.  He seems like he might even be someone I’d enjoy talking to over a cup of coffee and a scone.  Maybe one day we will.