by Erica Grieder
PublicAffairs, 2013, 304 pp., $26.99
The Texas Model: Prosperity in the Lone Star State and Lessons for America
by Chuck DeVore
Texas Public Policy Foundation, 2013, 150 pp., $9.98
here are many, many songs about Texas, probably more than any of the other 49 states can boast. Most are fairly unassuming. One of the most famous is “T for Texas”, also called “Blue Yodel No. 1”, by the great Mississippian Jimmy Rodgers. Recorded in November 1927, the song is about a heartbreaker of a girl named Thelma, and it even has the graciousness to mention another state, Tennessee, in passing.
But the official state song, “Texas, Our Texas”, adopted by the state legislature just two years later in 1929, is hardly humble or unassuming. It is rather long on bravado, reminiscent of the land itself and the people who inhabit it. The chorus goes like this:
Texas, our Texas, all hail the mighty state.
Texas, our Texas, so wonderful so great.
Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev’ry test,
O Empire wide and glorious,
You stand supremely blest.
The pride and self-confidence of the Lone Star State may well represent concurrently its greatest strength and weakness. Texas appears to have soared recently to the historical apex of its influence and power, becoming something of a “red” model to rival California’s “blue” one in the polarized national imagination. But the challenges of explosive growth that accompany the state’s new influence and power may test its ability to maintain its dynamism and prolong its burgeoning prosperity.
Two writers are certainly singing the song, and at least one of them hears a skeptical theme rising from beneath the self-congratulatory chorus. In Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right Erica Grieder, a Texas native and magazine journalist, embraces the unenviable task of writing a survey of Texas history, past and present, encompassing politics, culture, religion and much more—all in less than 300 pages. Any one of her areas of inquiry could have easily required a longer work than that (Texas-scale, so to speak). Grieder does a reasonable job of tying scores of threads together in a short book to weave a diverse overview of what makes Texas both fascinating and unique. She’s proud, yes, but she balances her pride judiciously with a sober assessment of reality.
In The Texas Model Chuck DeVore, a recent transplant to Texas from California, where he served in the state legislature and ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for U.S. Senator, sets for himself a different objective. In just around 150 pages he extols the virtues of Texas state government, with its current framework of low taxes, light regulations and limited government. A senior fellow for fiscal policy at the Texas Public Policy foundation, DeVore has laser-like focus and backs up his argument with reams of data, leading to a highly convincing effort. Perhaps the contrast of Texas with highly taxed, highly regulated, big government, high unemployment California is enough to make a convert (or even a zealot) out of anyone.
DeVore’s focus is almost solely concentrated on state fiscal policy, its effect on economic prosperity, and the superiority of “the Texas way” of governing. His thesis is that limited government in Texas has worked spectacularly and must be defended as zealously as Colonel Travis defended the Alamo. But unlike Travis, he hopes this time Texans will triumph, avoiding the hailstorm of taxes and spending that would dent or outright demolish the Texas economy at some yet to be determined point in the future. DeVore is focused sharply on the fight to preserve the current system in Texas of low taxes, light regulation and as little state governmental spending as possible, and to avoid California’s current state of affairs—excessive proneness to debt (despite the current surplus), high taxes and debilitating levels of governmental spending.
Sometimes it seems, however, that DeVore is fighting a battle that has already been won. No one in the mainstream in Texas is debating a significant increase in state taxes or spending; indeed the debate has shifted onto even more conservative ground. Hard-right conservatives in Texas are now arguing for flat spending or even shrinking the size of state government, while mainstream conservatives argue that any spending growth be limited to population growth plus the rate of inflation, to at least keep up with the massive demand for state services that a swelling population inherently brings with it.
With Texas projected to increase its population by half or more over the next generation (a thousand people move to Texas every day), the state and its conservative leadership will be faced with some draconian choices, assuming no tax increases, on where to spend tax dollars and where to withhold them. Between the rapid growth of the Medicaid program, educational needs at all levels, water infrastructure (especially considering the horrible drought the state is still enduring), highway and road maintenance and construction, public safety and many other needs, there will be no shortage of opportunities to spend or withhold money. If the hard right gets its way, those choices could become paralyzing.
DeVore’s analysis and that of others assumes the current tax system will stay in place. It doesn’t need to, and it shouldn’t. Texas’s antiquated tax system, which relies heavily on property and sales taxes, is past due for major reform. The current property tax, which punishes owners and rewards renters, should be eliminated or at least drastically reduced, as should the state’s business margins tax, which has been disappointing as a revenue generator as well as being a significant source of friction for business. Both should be phased out over a four-to-six year period and replaced with a more broad-based consumption tax, which taxes voluntary behavior. One goal in this process of dramatic change has to be the preservation of revenue neutrality with the prior system; without that, there is no chance the state legislature will pass tax reform.
For those seeking a well researched and well written advocacy piece solely focused on Texas governmental fiscal policy, The Texas Model is an outstanding read that is consumable in a reasonably short period. But it lacks a future tense, and thus a sense that Texas’s future will indeed be tense. Perhaps a worthy sequel for DeVore to write would be an analysis of all the infrastructure, educational and health care expenditures Texas faces as its population swells in the coming decades, and how the state will meet its fiduciary duty to all of its citizens and yet maintain the commitment to low taxes and business friendly regulations that so many Texans view as a prime reason for overall prosperity. The future looks more challenging than it has over the past few decades.
rieder’s Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right is the more challenging work to pull off effectively if only because of its vastly more complex ambitions. Grieder not only attempts a survey of Texas in a relatively short work but also weaves in numerous topics, not all of which relate simply or precisely to each other. There’s no mention of the Texas State Fair (which is glorious and the largest in the country), the Dallas Cowboys, Texas high school football, and insufficient discussion of culture and social elements of Texas life. She skips around quite a bit, “waltzing across Texas”, so to speak, to recall another well-known tune, through various topics and seasons of history. Her choice of organization makes her narrative occasionally difficult to follow, but the result is nevertheless a decent Texas primer—particularly useful, one would think, for youngsters and foreigners (that is, non-Texans). That is no small feat.
Perhaps a worthy sequel for Grieder, too, would be to peer into the future. What will the next forty years be like for Texas? How will it maintain its leadership over that span of time, both domestically and internationally?
he miniseries production of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove ends with the following exchange:
Reporter: They say you’re a man of vision. Is that true? . . . Captain Call?
Woodrow Call: A man’s vision, you say. Yeah. Hell of a vision.
The men and women who have shaped Texas over almost two centuries, to quote Woodrow Call, had a “hell of a vision.” They had grit of both the true and false varieties, nobility and hucksterism all rolled into one great ball of energy. For the most part they have been colorfully ultra-human characters. But do their heirs still possess such vision? Or will Texans rest smugly on their proud history, the achievements of their forerunners and the largesse of the present? Neither Grieder nor DeVore writes much like a Texan in this regard. Their horizons are short ones.
If Texas is to stay great, it has to capture a new vision. That vision must focus on what Texas will look like decades from now, when it is no longer home to 26 million people but forty or even fifty million. The state will probably be more heavily urbanized (unless perhaps it leads the way with aggressive telework policies). It will also probably have a Hispanic majority. Barring technological miracles, Texas will probably also need more water, highway and security infrastructure, requiring construction of numerous additional reservoirs, water processing systems, roads and highways, as well as expansion, maintenance and repair of current transportation infrastructure. To get more than the sum of infrastructure parts, Texas will need a new, better integrated way of governing and of managing public-private partnerships; at present, such levels of boldness and creativity in leadership are sparse, to put it generously.
As for education, the state will certainly need to provide higher quality elementary, secondary and post-secondary education for millions of additional young people. A diverse and dynamic economy that provides not only entry-level jobs but jobs fitting for college graduates is a must. It will also need to train sufficient numbers of police and fire officials, as well as other government service providers, to keep up with rapid growth.
If indeed Texas becomes significantly more urbanized, there is a danger that rural areas and isolated pockets of population within the state could be left behind. No true vision for Texas can neglect the well-being of small towns and rural communities, especially in West Texas, the Panhandle, East Texas and the Valley—in short, all the areas of the state that tend to get ignored compared to the major urban centers of Dallas–Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and Houston.
The size and scope of modern-day Texas mandates that the state occupy a front-row, center seat in the national conversation of the nation’s present and future. That includes not just domestic policy but foreign policy as well; America’s larger states are all acquiring their own foreign policies, at least in the economic realm. Whether Texas prospers or falls on hard times will have significant impact on neighboring states in particular and the rest of the country in general.
With a healthy combination of traditional Texas values, work ethic and bold vision for what the future will require, Texans should be optimistic that the days and years to come will be bright ones. But hubris and inflexible ideology are both incompatible with genuine optimism. Complacency and self-satisfaction, currently well represented around the state, are profoundly unwise. A great people and a great state should never become self-satisfied, but should always be looking (and working) to a brighter future. Texas can’t be a worthy model, red or otherwise, in any other way.