What Erica Grieder has succeeded in doing with this book is what few journalists have been able to do: The Texas Monthly editor and one-time Southwest correspondent for the Economist has captured the twin realities of a state that is easy and tempting to mischaracterize. And she avoids the traps that both liberals and conservatives often fall into when evaluating a state with 26 million people, diverse and cosmopolitan cities, and Republican leadership. She also presents a case for why the rest of the nation should pay attention to this state, even if some would prefer to look away.
Liberals reflexively view Texas as a godawful hellhole of poor families, uninsured kids, and cheapskate government. Conservatives cheer on the Texas miracle of sustained economic growth without acknowledging that the state’s rapidly changing demographics require some kind of public response.
These mistaken views of Texas pop up regularly, but especially during presidential campaigns. When Rick Perry ran in 2012, critics like Paul Krugman would have had you think Texas was a backwater reachable only by boat or weekly air taxis. No way would you have thought we were the second most populous state in America, with greater job growth than most every state in the country. Nor would you have understood that we are a magnet for transplants from around the country and world.
The most charitable point that could be made about the critiques leveled at our governor is that you could see them coming long before Perry’s presidential campaign. Similar complaints were hurled at George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential race.
On the other hand, listening to Perry simplify Texas like the cheerleader he was in college was often too much to take. It still is. My Texas roots go back to the 1850s, so I am a proud Texan; but I sometimes cringe when I hear Perry talk in almost condescending tones about Texas being a land of job-creators, low taxes, and minimal regulation. We are doing a good job with those three elements, to be sure. But he can be as reductionist about our complex, multilayered state as Krugman and his crowd. Rarely do you hear Rick Perry say much about the fact that we have an aging Anglo population and a young Hispanic one. Nor do you hear him talk much about how Republicans can apply the notions of limited government to that demographic tension, which will soon become America’s tension.
If he did, our governor would be a more interesting figure.
The prominence of the opposing poles of Texas-bashers and Texas-apologists is what makes Grieder’s work so refreshing. She clearly loves Texas, so she is not just some reflexive Lone Star-hater. She gets the economic advantages of a state government that functions differently from the sprawling, taxing approach of a New York or California bureaucracy. Here’s how she puts the difference:
I hate to be gloomy, but California . . . well, given its economic problems, maybe we should look elsewhere for ideas. Texas is the logical choice. Even if some of its politicians don’t believe in evolution, it’s already managed to evolve. . . . Today, Texas is one of America’s genuine powerhouses, and it has all the tools it needs to keep that up as long as it plans accordingly.
At the same time, Grieder owns up to the limitations of our state: “If you want to talk about schools, about health care, about poverty,” she writes, “Texas is at the bottom of the pack, keeping company with its bedraggled southern neighbors.”
What’s more, she notes, “The cheerleaders dismiss Texas’ inequities, its glibness, its hubris.”
Our challenges start with devising a way to better prepare the Latino students who make up slightly more than half of the state’s public school population. In some parts of Texas, such as Dallas, those numbers are even greater. Almost 70 percent of students in the Dallas school district are Hispanic. Texas schools must increasingly become a place where Hispanic students learn to assimilate into the larger culture. And they will broaden the Texas identity, which is just fine. One of the exciting elements of living here is watching the state absorb a large number of immigrants from all over the world. Houston is now America’s most ethnically diverse city, according to Rice sociologist Steve Klineberg, whose analysis influences Grieder.
Yet the state also needs to make sure it readies the large number of Latino students for the jobs that will give them economic and social mobility. Their educational progress will allow Texas to grow and attract skilled, higher-paying jobs that could go elsewhere in search of smart workers. A product of Texas public schools, Grieder touches on this reality; but sadly, Texas just took a big step back in meeting this challenge. In their recent session, legislators approved two major bills that will dial back the state’s school accountability system and its 30-year emphasis on ramping up academic standards. Perry unwisely signed those bills, which were a retreat from decades of bipartisan focus on improving Texas’s educational rigor.
A self-described military brat who spent some of her formative years in San Antonio, Grieder helps the reader understand how Texas got to be cheap and right by delving into our history. What results is a nuanced read that avoids the temptation to go saccharine about Texas’s frontier heritage. Yet she embraces the independent streak that gave rise to Sam Houston, who famously opposed Texas leaving the Union.
One of the more revealing parts of this book is Grieder’s account of how Texans developed a lean government. It wasn’t so much out of meanness, although there has been some of that. Grieder attributes our approach to the fact that Texans developed as a breed that didn’t expect much from government, and she traces that attitude back to our cowboy culture and its “protolibertarian ethos.” I doubt those words have been used before to describe the cowpokes who hustled dogies along the Goodnight Trail. But she has a point. Early on, the private sector became a substitute for government, even in the delivery of services.
The resurgence of downtown Dallas is a good example of the private sector’s progressive role. The city has developed an arts district within the last decade that includes a prominent sculpture center, an opera house, and performing arts hall. Dallas did that with almost nothing but private money.
As Grieder explains, being pro-business in Texas does not mean being antigovernment. Texas has a long history of using government to support businesses. H. Ross Perot’s EDS Company got rich, at first, through processing Medicare and Medicaid claims; the oil business benefited from favorable tax laws; and the state’s vast agricultural industry has hauled down many federal subsidies.
At the end of the book, Grieder raises the question of how Texas can sustain its model of being pro-business and championing limited government. Some Republicans in the state government are thinking about this: At the 2013 legislature’s beginning, Speaker Joe Straus toured the state talking about preparing Texas for 2030. His message was refreshing, emphasizing issues such as funding Texas’s 50-year water plan. By the session’s end in late spring, he and the GOP-led legislature had found a way to do it, and if voters approve their strategy in a ballot measure next month, Texas will be taking care of the infrastructure upgrades it needs in order to sustain its economy and fast population growth.
So, Straus and other Republicans are thinking about how to apply the ideals of limited government to the core needs of the state. I hope they succeed—because that’s how Texas can continue to be big, hot, cheap, and right.
William McKenzie is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News.