Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas, by Erica Grieder (PublicAffairs, 304 pp., $26.99)
Texas is a problem for liberals. If the state weren’t the economic powerhouse it has become in the last decade, it might not be such a problem. It might be easy to dismiss Texas for all its oddities and arrogance: the infamous textbook wars over creationism and abstinence-only sex education, the persistent use of the death penalty, the president who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and gave the country No Child Left Behind. If that’s all there were to Texas, liberals might be able to dismiss it as another backward southern state.
But there’s no dismissing the Lone Star State, no matter what one thinks of it. Five years on from the Great Recession, Texas’s low-tax, pro-business policies have largely shielded its residents and businesses from the economic downturn suffered by the rest of the country. Between 2009 and 2011, when unemployment was hovering between 9 and 10 percent nationwide, Texas alone created 40 percent of America’s new jobs. Last year, it accounted for nearly 9 percent of the country’s economy. Millions of people have moved there over the past decade, drawn by the promise of work.
The plain facts of the Texas economy confound liberals, who have a hard time believing in this so-called Texas Miracle, despite mounting evidence that it is real and durable, that something fundamental about Texas’s approach to economic growth is distinguishing it from, say, California.
The glaring contrast between those two states provokes a striking form of cognitive dissonance among coastal liberal elites. One also senses a kind of fear. When Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign collapsed in a few awkward minutes during a nationally televised Republican-primary debate last year, the Left was quick to mock him. But behind the mockery there was a collective sigh of relief; their man would not have to run against the governor of the state that had almost singlehandedly kept the American economy afloat for the better part of two years, who had won almost 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last election. That race would have been a lot more difficult than running against the Mormon architect of Obamacare from Massachusetts.
In her 2012 book, As Texas Goes . . ., New York Times columnist Gail Collins set out to show that Texas, far from being worthy of emulation, is a harbinger of doom for the rest of the country. The state’s low taxes and economic growth, she argued, come at the expense of things like welfare and education and the environment. Plus, Governor Perry believes in ridiculous things like abstinence-only sex education and the death penalty. That’s a problem, says Collins, because Texas is big and powerful and its policies, which disproportionately influence the rest of the country, will lead America to ruin.
Fortunately, cooler heads may be prevailing when it comes to books about the meaning of Texas: Erica Grieder has no such axe to grind in her new book, Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right. A former correspondent on the American Southwest for The Economist and now a senior editor at Texas Monthly, Grieder is also a native of San Antonio, and comes at the question of Texas with an insider’s perspective that Collins’s jokey, stereotype-obsessed book sorely lacked. She knows enough about the state to argue, convincingly, that the rest of America ignores Texas at its peril.
Grieder’s aim is to explain her native state, patiently and with a sense of humor, to suspicious and hostile outsiders like Collins. It is not an easy task, and Grieder seems to be aware that to defend Texas to liberals she must also apologize for it, or at least concede that there is much to disapprove of about the place. Throughout the book, when she compliments Texas with one hand she often slights it with the other. Noting the state’s concessions to civil rights and women’s rights, therefore, requires a caveat that “Texans have been, perhaps, so obsessed with profit that they would consider it unfair to deny anyone a chance at the same, and whenever Texas does something unusually egalitarian, that’s usually the explanation.”
At times, Grieder does this so well that one loses sight of her main point: Texas exemplifies, in an exaggerated way, the American tradition of limited government, individual liberty, and private enterprise — and the rest of the country shouldn’t scoff at that. “There’s no reason to be scared. There’s no reason to be jealous,” she writes. “There are, however, plenty of reasons to pay attention.”
To make this case, Grieder spends the book’s first two chapters unpacking the Texas Miracle and the Texas Model, which have a rather straightforward relationship: The state’s stellar economic performance during the recession (the miracle) was possible because of a preexisting kind of governance that favors low taxes and light regulation (the model).
In defense of the first, she easily bests such critics as Paul Krugman, who has opined that “Texan experience offers no useful lessons on how to restore national full employment.” The basis of his claim — that the jobs Texas creates are either minimum-wage “McJobs” or the product of filthy oil lucre, which other states cannot replicate — is, as Grieder demonstrates with a fusillade of recent data, simply not true.
In defense of the second, Grieder argues that the principle of “low taxes, low services” has indeed helped create Texas’s powerhouse economy, but also that state leaders intentionally diversified that economy after oil prices collapsed in 1986. To do so, the leaders were (as they always have been, and still are) willing to ignore the Texas model when government could be made to serve industry — Texas industry, that is.
If that interpretation flies in the face of all the bluster about limited government in Texas, it also serves to demonstrate one of Grieder’s recurring themes: Texas is not as dogmatic, socially or politically, as it sometimes appears to be. An obvious example is the state legislature’s establishment, in 2003 and 2005, of two funds designed solely to boost certain industries: the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which is supposed to attract biotech, aerospace, etc., and the Texas Enterprise Fund, which is basically Perry’s slush fund to close deals, sometimes with companies he’s lured in from other states. Although they run counter to the ethos of the Texas Model, these sorts of funds are not unique to Texas and, as Grieder points out, Texas isn’t “a straightforward probusiness state”: “It was (and is) pro–Texas business, whether the business was farming or oil or microchips. And if the government had to get involved to help the private sector along, well, for many Texans, that’s what the government was for.”
This pragmatic approach — let’s call it “limited but targeted government” — extends to other issues. Consider illegal immigration: Texas, in contrast to some of its neighbors, has more or less tolerated it, because, despite some drawbacks, it provides a large pool of low-wage labor that the state’s economy needs. In all these things, Grieder detects a pattern: “Texans have a tendency to set aside partisanship, bias, even their stated views, when economic goals are at stake.” This attitude supposedly makes up a big part of the state’s “strange genius,” and also helps explain why Texas is often misunderstood by the rest of the country.
To help readers understand, Grieder spends the rest of the book delving into Texas’s strange political history, which helps show that, far from being an outlier in the Union, Texas is fundamentally American — and perhaps more so than most other states, in part because of its crooked path to statehood. The founders of the Republic of Texas wanted more than anything to join the Union, and spent a hard decade trying for statehood before Washington reluctantly granted it in 1845.
Sam Houston, who famously served as president of the Republic, U.S. senator, and governor of Texas, denounced other slaveholding states in the run-up to the Civil War when murmurs of secession arose. Texans were not interested; they had always understood their destiny to be with the United States: “Think you, sir, that after all the difficulties they have encountered to get into the Union, that you can ever whip them out of it? No, sir. . . . We shed our blood to get into it, and we have now no arms to turn against it.” A decade later, caught up in the fever of war back east, Texas did secede, and Houston resigned his governorship the very same day.
Houston was, writes Grieder, “among the first people to see that Texas was part of the United States, even before the United States was committed to it, and even if Texans wavered along the way.” For as much as she apologizes for and questions her home state — its “obsession” with profit, its religious grandstanding, its casual arrogance, and its occasional ignorance — Grieder is among those who see that Texas, for all its faults and contradictions, is not an outlier but a zealous inheritor of the American ideal and a grateful son of the Union, and that its dogged pursuit of prosperity might be blazing a path forward for the rest of the country.
– Mr. Davidson is a health-care-policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.