Mention Texas to someone from another state and they might picture cowboys herding longhorn cattle across the open range, or scheming, wealthy oil barons a la TV’s “Dallas”—or “The Simpsons.” The Lone Star State, which was admitted to the United States after winning its own independence from Mexico, still sometimes seems—as the state tourism slogan goes—“like a whole other country.”
Americans may hold a lot of stereotypes about Texas, but journalist—and Texan—Erica Grieder argues that our country could learn a few lessons from our most misunderstood state. In Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas, Grieder lays out a case for her home state, where despite one of the highest poverty rates in the country and the highest proportion of people without health insurance, unemployment is down, growth is up and a $1.3-trillion economy is booming.
You’re not the first Texan to defend your state’s eccentricities. Why do you think Texas needs to be explained to the rest of the country?
People around the country have a lot of misconceptions about this state. Every Texan has their suite of stories of the reactions that they get when they’re going about the normal course of business somewhere else. The classic jokes are, “Are you carrying a gun?” and “Do you ride a horse around?” I once was riding my bike here in Austin and I saw a horse tied to a bike post, but I think that’s an exceptional mode of transport.
Texas does have a unique history—as you note in the book, it was the only state other than Hawaii to have been an independent nation before it was a state. How did that history make Texas what it is today?
We have a deliberately cultivated cultural value, the idea that we were once independent and we can still have some measure of independence. Even today, people around the state will refer a lot to things that happened in the past. The past has taken on this emotional resonance over time.
There are great stories about the Texas Revolution, great stories about the wildcatters [oil prospectors] during the oil rush. I love [Texas founding father] Sam Houston’s life story, how he stood down as governor rather than join the Confederacy. Texas has a very dramatic history, and it creates a sense of common purpose. I think it helps keeps folks united—we put things in terms of, “Is this good for Texas?” And it’s not as oppositional as it sounds—being pro-Texas does not mean being anti-California or anti-Florida or anti-New York. It’s just that we are very proud of who we are.
Going through the history, there were junctions when things were set in place that are playing out today. The big one was the 1876 state constitution, which establishes a pretty weak governor’s office and makes it hard to raise or spend money. You’d have to amend the constitution to create an income tax.
Texas is different from the rest of the country, but you say it may actually be America “taken to its logical conclusion.” Can you explain?
We have these beliefs in self-reliance, entrepreneurship and bootstrapping. We profess those things quite vocally and quite ardently, compared to most states. I was reading [British-born essayist] Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, and he talks about his early impressions of Americans as these nice, well meaning but sort of vulgar people running around all the time. The way that Britain looks at the U.S. sounds like the way the U.S. looks at Texas. To be fair, we do kind of encourage it, because there’s that Texan swagger. I’m not sure we’re the most diplomatic people in the world. But there is substance to that swagger. We are going against national trends right now, and we’re prospering.