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.
What does Texas have to be proud of?
This is a state where people are able to find opportunity. Texas is creating a lot of jobs across the income spectrum. Our unemployment rate has been lower than the national average every month for years. Our per capita personal income is 97 percent of the national average. Median household income is, similarly, just a hair below the national median. The state’s population growth suggests that people are taking notice—between 2000 and 2010, Texas gained more than 4 million people, of whom about 2 million were Americans from other states. It’s become a cliché to say that people are “voting with their feet,” but there it is. When we talk about how well the economy’s doing in this state, it’s not a mistake or an accident or a mirage. The data that we have is valid and does suggest that something here is working quite well.
But at the same time, Texas has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, 17 percent compared to 14.3 percent in the U.S. as a whole, according to 2011 census data. And the income gap between the richest and the poorest Texans has widened in recent years. Are these problems in spite of the state’s success, or are they a side effect?
The problems predated the state’s economic success. Historically, it was a very, very poor state. Poverty’s an ongoing issue, especially in certain parts of the state, and I think it’s definitely something Texas should be looking at. I’d focus more on the poverty rate than the gap, which could also mean that people are getting richer.
The overall trajectory has been one of population growth and economic growth, partly because we had room to grow, and I’m not sure that any problems have been exacerbated by the economic success. We’re creating jobs that are not just minimum wage, but middle income and higher wage jobs as well. In many respects we’re doing better than people would guess, and we’re not getting worse. In some areas we’re improving.
How is Texas improving?
Everyone expects that we’re doing the worst in everything, and that’s not true. Our schools are getting better. There’s less funding per capita than in a lot of states, but the outcomes in public schools aren’t actually that bad. We’re in the middle of the pack as far as fourth grade and eighth grade math and science scores on the federal NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] exams. If you compare us to the other big states—Illinois, Florida—we’re the best of all of them. We’re last or among the last in terms of the percentage of adults with a high school diploma, but given that we’re now among the lowest dropout rates, that won’t be true 20 years from now.
Texas also has the highest rate of people without health insurance—more than one in four are uninsured. Isn’t that a problem?
The rate of people without health insurance has been talked about a lot lately. It’s gotten a little worse, and it’s not a new issue. The United Health Foundation, for 2012, ranked us 40th overall for state health, and among the factors bringing us down was that we have the lowest insurance rate. But if you look at the category of health outcomes—defined as deaths, disease and days of work missed due to illness—we’re 25th. We’ve improved in some categories but not in others. On things like smoking rates, we’re actually pretty low. The state has raised the tobacco tax a couple of times in the past ten years, and a lot of the cities have passed various smoking bans. One thing that is planned in the current budget is funding for mental health care, around $200 million. That’s another area where Texas has historically ranked worst, and it was a bipartisan push this time around. On a lot of these social services the barrier is financial rather than philosophical.
Texas has historically had a huge oil industry, but countries and states with a lot of natural resources tend to have low growth—the so-called “resource curse.” Did Texas dodge that trap?
Texas was the second state to pass an anti-trust law, in 1889, in response to the national railways and national banks. (Texans, not having had those things, were a little bit parochial about it.) Once oil was discovered in great quantities in 1901 at Spindletop—it was this big gusher—the state had already been using its anti-trust law to push back at Standard Oil, the big Rockefeller oil company based in Pennsylvania. It didn’t mean the wealth was shared equally, but it did keep a lot of the profits in the state, which is not how things usually work for resource-rich states and countries. Beyond that, Texans are pretty shrewd. The state realized how bad it would be to be heavily dependent on oil as the component of its economy, especially in the ’80s, when prices collapsed. Since then, you’ve seen the state diversify its economy away from oil.
Those efforts seem inconsistent with Texas’ laissez-faire approach.
It is an interesting wrinkle on the Texas narrative of being a very free-market state—having anti-trust protections isn’t a free-market move. But I think that Texans are above all pro-Texas, and as pro-business as they are, pro-Texas trumps that. I think Texans are able to arbitrate between idealism and reality. In a number of cases, when there’s been a difference between what the “philosophy” of the state is and what the best course of action is, we do the prudent thing.
What are the lessons here for the rest of the country?
Texas is a state with room to grow and a need to grow. States that are in a similar position might want to take some pages from the Texas playbook. The Texas model prioritizes growth. It has low taxes, low services, and it’s always been a very small-government state. We see a lot of southern states—Louisiana is the most obvious example, and Alabama is another—focusing on lowering taxes and increasing economic development initiatives. The idea is that if you can attract companies, you can bring jobs, and jobs bring money, much of which is spent or reinvested in the state itself.
Not all states are looking to grow like Texas has, but are there practices they could adopt without copying Texas entirely?
States that are in financial disorder—not naming any names—should take a look at Texas’ fiscal discipline. I don’t see how it does people any good to build a bigger safety net if you’re just going to yank it away a couple of years down the road because you can’t pay for it.
Secondly, some would say that one of the big problems right now with the national economy is that the private sector is in a defensive crouch. Businesses keep saying they don’t know what to expect from the federal government, the world markets and so on, which is why they don’t want to make investment decisions and are sitting on big cash reserves rather than spending and hiring. If you think that’s true, then one of Texas’ underrated advantages is that it’s managed to mitigate a lot of policy uncertainty. Regardless of what’s going on in national politics, or foreign affairs, or with the weather, it’s a pretty safe bet that Texas is going to stay on the low-tax, low-services side of the spectrum. That makes it easier for businesses and families to plan for the future.
So Texas has a booming economy and it’s a good place to start a business, but what is it like to live there?
I think it’s great. I like the space. As I get older, I’m more and more curmudgeonly about having lots of space around me. I like how down-to-earth it is, and I like the practical intelligence that people in Texas have. I think part of the national stereotype is that we’re really aggressive and kind of belligerent, but that means people will do things around here, they’ll start businesses, they’ll take on projects with enthusiasm. It’s not a very cerebral state, but people do get things done.
I think every state has its own virtues and flaws. We are certainly well supplied with virtues and flaws in Texas, but it’s a great place to visit—if nothing else, to have some stories to bring back. But then again, more and more people are coming, and everyone in Austin is always saying, “It’s getting too big, it’s getting too big!” So I think my next book might be called, Never Mind, Guys.