The Myth of the Sticky-Magnet State

Several months ago, this article from the Pew Research Center categorized several states as sticky, magnet, or both; sticky means that people who live there tend to stay there, while magnet means that  it attracts people. Some states (Arizona, Florida, Maryland) are High Magnet/High Sticky, while others are one or the other, and one sad batch is neither (Iowa, New York, West Virginia).

What this study doesn’t tell us is very much about what those places are actually like, only the “raw numbers” about mobility and retention. For example, my home state of Maryland is described as “magnet/sticky” (woot) but so are Arizona and Florida, and as far as I can tell, these three states share little in common. Certainly the recent real estate bust was felt worse in those places than here.

I believe that in Maryland’s case, we are both the wrong kind of magnetic and and the wrong kind of sticky, and so to describe Maryland in this way is counterproductive because it assigns a positive spin to some inherently negative patterns of movement.

For example: suppose Maryland is “high magnet” because it attracts people who want to work for federal government contractors. This increases the per-capita income but puts pressure on roads, exacerbates suburban sprawl, and adds people to the voting base who often don’t understand local issues or have personal experience with the landscape around them. I’d call this effect neutral, if not negative.

Suppose Maryland is “high sticky” because we retain 99.5% of our college graduates (a number I’ve heard tossed around). But suppose we export .5% of our very best and brightest and our natural born “effectuators?” And suppose that the smart people we do retain get sucked into government? Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the most creative entrepreneurial landscape sometimes.

Maryland has a great deal going for it, but articles like this are meaningless and enhance a simplistic, 19th century view of how we want to build our society. Who are we building our society and economic structures for?

If we are building them for ourselves we need to start thinking about how they serve our everyday experience as people. I have more thoughts on this. If we want to build our society for corporations and a 19th-century conception of what education, production, and economic value is then idiotic oversimplifications like “high magnet, high sticky” might be useful.

I believe we can and must move past such Orwellian, disingenuous oversimplifications.