Skip to comments.The Future is Texas
Posted on 12/24/2002 8:13:04 AM PST by Mister Magoo
The future is Texas
Dec 19th 2002 | AUSTIN, DALLAS AND LAREDO From The Economist print edition
If you want to see where America is heading, start by studying Texas
FOR the past century, the history of the United States has been written by a succession of mega states. New York pioneered New Deal liberalism. Michigan pioneered mass production and giant trade unions. California was the incubator of the Reagan and high-tech revolutions. Today, American history is being shaped by a giant south-western state that is best known for its cowboys and oil barons.
George Bush's White House is Texan-occupied territory. Another Texan, Tom DeLay, lords it over Capitol Hill, as House majority leader. The most important business story of the past couple of years starred a Texan company, Enron.
The importance of Texas is partly a reflection of its sheer size and dynamism. It is the second-most-populous state after California, and the second-fastest-growing mega-state after Florida, having doubled its population since 1960. Texas is one of the few states importing people both from within America, and without. The state's wide open spaces and light regulations have made it a business magnet. Corporate giants such as American Airlines and J.C. Penney, a retailer, have moved their headquarters there. Austin, the state capital, is the fastest-growing high-tech cluster in the country.
The state also owes its importance to the fact that, in many ways, it has arrived at the future first. Texas led the charge away from the Great Society (introduced by a Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson) to today's conservative Republicanism, with its enthusiasm for business, religion, rolling back the state, muscular nationalism and open borders. Texas, together with California, is also pioneering the Latinoisation of America. Latinos already make up 32% of the state population, a share that is rapidly growing. The state has far more affinity with Mexico than far-away Europe.
A star apart The prospect of a Texan-fried future is unlikely to be greeted with universal joy, however. Many people regard the state as synonymous with serial executions and vulgar ostentation, with Old Sparky and J.R. Ewing. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the Democrats lambasted Mr Bush as a Toxic Texan who wanted to impose his state's cowboy capitalism and yahoo values on the rest of the country.
But what exactly is Texas, this state that is playing such a vital role in shaping America at the height of its power?
Before answering this question a couple of caveats should be observed. The first is that Texas is changing fast. A state that was once rural is now largely urban, home to three of the ten biggest cities in the country. A state that was once dependent on commodities now boasts a highly diversified economy. The oil industry has branched out from simply extracting oil from the ground to selling highly sophisticated skills around the world. Booming high-tech companies such as Dell, EDS and Texas Instruments are sucking in highly educated professionals from across the country. Michael Lind, a fellow of the New America Foundation, a think-tank, and the author of a forthcoming book on his native state, says that Texas is transforming itself from Mississippi into California.
The second caveat is that the state is highly diverse. Bits of eastern Texas are indeed like Mississippi. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is thoroughly mid-westernthe place, as Will Rogers, the legendary cowboy-turned-Hollywood-star, put it, where the east peters out and the west begins. Border cities like Laredo are as much Mexican as American. In El Paso, it almost never rains. Houston gets an average annual drenching twice as heavy as London.
For all that, you know you're in Texas when you're in Texas. From Austin's swanky Driskill hotel, whose bar seats are made of cowhide and walls are decorated with images of cowboys and wagon trains, to the grotty border towns, where Mexicanos walk around in ten-gallon hats; from the high-rises of Dallas, where businessmen wear cowboy boots and string ties, to the 100,000-acre (40,500-hectare) ranches where ranchers use small aircraft to visit neighbours, there is something utterly distinctive about the place. In the land of the bland, Texas retains its unique flavour.
Violence is not limited to the military variety. Texas was tamed by gun-wielding cowboys and remains thoroughly marinated in the gun culture
Texas has an almost national sense of identity. Texans love to boast that their state was an independent nation before it joined the union: that for nine glorious years (1836-45), Texans had their own army, navy, currency and foreign policy. The lone star symbol is stamped into the concrete of the state freeways. The injunction don't mess with Texas is ubiquitous.
So what is Texas? The simplest answer is that it is America on steroids. Think of the characteristics that make America distinctiveits size and diversity, its optimism and self-confidence, its crass materialism and bravado, its incredible ability to make something out of nothingand they exist in their purest form in Texas. Marshall Wittmann, of the Hudson Institute, says that his native state is America's America: the place where Americans go when they need a new start and a fresh opportunity. You can go to hell, Davy Crockett declared when his political career collapsed in Tennessee: I'm going to Texas.
The sheer size of Mr Crockett's adopted stateTexas is almost as big as Britain and France combinedhas an effect on the mindset. Size promotes a slash and burn attitude, for instance, to the environment, an outlook reinforced by the fact that so much of the state is physically nondescript: a collection of tedious plains, vast deserts and anonymous scrublands. Intensive cotton-growing ruined the soil of riverbeds. Overgrazing ruined the prairie soil. Oil speculators left ghost towns and pools of pollution in their wake. This is a land that breeds a tough-minded respect for man's ability to master nature, the opposite of the namby-pamby environmentalism that flourishes in Europe's compact cities and beautiful countryside.
Size goes along with a swaggering boastfulness. This boastfulness seems to be encoded in the American DNA: the prospectuses that persuaded Elizabethans to invest in the Massachusetts and Virginia companies were full of tall tales about the New World. But Texas has perfected bigger-and-bestest-of-everything braggadocio. Joel Kotkin, of Pepperdine University, provocatively compares California to a beautiful blonde who knows that the men will come running, while dowdy old Texas has to try that much harder.
Yet Texans have a gift for turning their boasts into reality. Dallas's gleaming towers arise out of a featureless plain. Houston has built a sophisticated civilisation on a steaming and mosquito-infested swamp. Fort Worth, a former cow town, has some of the most charming museums in the country. The state's motto might as well be Let's get the dirt flying.
Texas is a land of buccaneering capitalism: of wildcatters who made fabulous fortunes out of holes in the ground, and Potemkin firms that became the toast of the town, like Enron. It has produced some remarkable rags-to-riches stories: think of C.M. Dad Joiner, a 71-year-old wildcatter who sank his last dollars into a makeshift drilling-rig and hit oil at 3,600 feet, or the extraordinary Hunt dynasty, started by H.L. Hunt, a notorious bigamist who became one of the world's richest oil men.
But it has also produced a rather immature attitude to wealth. Mr Lind argues that the state's gusher elite practises a form of capitalism that is closer to gambling than to Max Weber's Protestant ethic. Texas is famous for its mega-mansions, spectacular balls and its Neiman Marcus catalogue, which has offered such items as his and her giraffes and submarines. It is also famous for boom-bust cycles and speculative bubbles. The oil boom, which once made Texas the world's biggest producer of oil, went bust in the 1980s, a decade that also saw the real-estate bubble burst and the Savings and Loan industry implode. Today, the state is struggling with both the collapse of Enron and the puncturing of the high-tech bubble.
If Texas is generous to the successful, it is equally hard on the unfortunate
If Texas is generous to the successful, it is equally hard on the unfortunate. This is a land of low taxes, weak trade unions, a shrivelled public sector and a paltry welfare state, all of which ensure that plenty co-exists with poverty. Houston's shimmering towers and malls sit next to festering slums, with unpaved streets and shot-gun shacks; the city's world-class medical centre squats atop a health-care system that fails to reach the state's poorest citizens. The University of Texas boasts a star-studied faculty and the second-largest endowment after Harvard, with 21m acres of oil-fields to its name. But Texas also has some of the worst schools in the country.
Texas is arguably the most militaristic state in the union, the heir to the South's military tradition and the beneficiary of federal largesse that has left military bases dotted around the state. The San Antonio region is the living embodiment of the military-industrial complex, with an army base, two air-force bases, a huge army medical centre, dozens of defence-related firms and a big community of military retirees. Fort Hood, near Waco, is the army's second-largest base. The 16,000-acre Pantex plant in west Texas secretly assembled thousands of nuclear warheads during the cold war, and now maintains what remains of America's nuclear arsenal.
Violence is not limited to the military variety. Texas represents the confluence of the two most violent areas in the country: the South and the frontier. Texas was tamed by gun-wielding cowboys and remains thoroughly marinated in the gun culture. This is the state where Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy, and where a former marine, Charles Whitman, stood on the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and fired his rifle for an hour and a half, killing 14 and injuring 31. In 2000, George Bush's last year as governor, the state executed 40 people. Today, 452 people are languishing on Texas's death row, 12% of the country's total.
Deceptive appearances All this suggests that Texas is a fairly simple place to grasp. But the longer you spend there, the more complicated it becomes. Those seemingly straightforward Texans turn out to be profoundly ambivalent on all sorts of vital issues.
Take government. Freedom-loving Texans have taken lots of measures to tame the government beast. The state legislature is in session only for six months every two years. Legislators are paid only a nominal sum. The governor does not even have the power to appoint his cabinet. Texas's minimalistic attitude to government is embodied in one of the Texas Rangers' favourite mottoes: one riot, one ranger.
Yet the Lone Star state owes as much to Washington as anywhere else does. Federal government money has helped to transform a rural backwater into a high-tech leviathan, starting with hydro-electric power in the 1930s, intensifying with the space programme in the 1960s, and continuing with today's huge military build-up. The reason that the first word spoken on the moon was Houston is that Texas is so skilful at wielding political power.
Sam Rayburn, raised in hardscrabble farm country along an unnavigable river, held the Speakership of Congress for almost 20 yearslonger than anybody elseand crafted much of the New Deal legislation. Lyndon Johnson, from backward hill country, was arguably the most powerful senator America has ever produced. Between 1964 and 2000, Texas supplied three elected presidents (Johnson and the two Bushes), two vice-presidential candidates (George Bush senior and Lloyd Bentsen), and the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt (Ross Perot).
Texan politicians have a genius for burying party differences when it comes to helping their native state, a talent that has survived the Republican takeover. Phil Gramm, a fiscal conservative who held LBJ's senate seat until his recent retirement, liked to say: I'm carrying so much pork, I'm beginning to get trichinosis. Were Congress ever to approve a daft programme such as manufacturing cheese on the moon, he says, he would try to make sure that the milk came from Texan cows and the celestial navigation system was developed in a Texan university.
This points to a second source of ambivalence: individualism. Texans pride themselves on preserving this American traditionand its economic partner, entrepreneurialismin its purest form. Who but a larger-than-life individual would have the guts to settle in such unforgiving land? The state's most successful politicians have all been outsized characters, people who combine good ol' boy charm with cunning and eccentricity: Bob Bullock, the lieutenant-governor who married five times, or Mr Perot, or, of course, LBJ.
But Texans also have a strong collectivist streak, seen in their obsessive loyalty to their football teams, in their fondness for fraternities, and in the intense rivalry between the state's two leading universities, the University of Texas and Texas A&M. The Texas business oligarchy is one of the clubbiest in the country, forever working behind the scenes to fix problems, organise civic projects and win one for Texas.
The state's business and political elites are hopelessly intertwined. Politicians have always had a habit of getting rich: LBJ somehow ended up owning the state's most lucrative media contracts. And business people have always had a knack of backing the right politicians, or winning the most lucrative government contracts. Mr Perot, for example, was America's first welfare billionaire, thanks to a contract that allowed him to computerise the country's social-security system. The oil and gas industry mastered crony capitalism long before Ken Lay came along. Generations of congressmen spent their careers protecting the industry's perks and tax breaks, and generations of oilmen set as much store by cultivating goodwill in Washington as prospecting for oil.
George Bush is thus a perfect embodiment of this Texas tradition: a man who loves to talk about individualism and entrepreneurship, but owes much of his fortune to the helping hand of fellow members of the Texas elite, and is less interested in promoting competition than in cutting deals with powerful business interests.
The outsiders Alamy
Perfect spot for a mansion or two
There is much to disapprove of in all this. But before writing off the Texification of America, it is worth reflecting on a few of the state's more appealing qualities.
The most attractive is openness. This has always been an export-based economy, with first cotton, then energy and now high-tech linking it to global markets. It has always lured outside capital and talent. Texas has taken the East Coast Bush family to its heart because their story of transplantation is so typically Texan.
The enthusiasm for openness has been reinforced by NAFTA, a project masterminded by Texans of both parties, notably Lloyd Bentsen and George Bush senior, and which has helped to transform the state's 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometre) border with Mexico from a potential problem into an opportunity. Fully 70% of America's exports to Mexico go through Texas. More than 3,000 maquiladoras have sprung up along the border, and twin towns, such as El Paso-Juarez and Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, exist in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. The World Trade Bridge between Laredo and its Mexican twin is one of the world's busiest, with 9,000 trucks crossing a day.
This openness is increasingly cultural as well as economic. Texas has a terrible tradition of racism, to be sure, which led it to side with the Confederacy, pass Jim Crow laws and nurture the Ku Klux Klan, but that tradition is fading fast. Instead, Texas is enthusiastically mixing all sorts of culturesfrom the South, south-west and the other side of the borderinto a distinctive blend. In Laredo, newly rich Latinos put on debutante balls for their daughters, borrowing from an old southern tradition. In Austin, one of the liveliest music towns in the country, Tejano musicians mix country and western with Mexican music.
The Texas Republican Party has thrown in its lot with openness, thanks in no small part to the Bush dynasty. The party refused to engage in the immigrant-bashing that eventually condemned the Californian Republican Party to irrelevance. Indeed, George Bush was a frequent visitor to Mexico, and an enthusiastic, if imperfect, speaker of Spanish. The party also successfully got rid of affirmative action while holding out a helping hand to poorer people, offering places at state universities in Texas to the top 10% of students from every school. The Texan GOP's national ascendancy has thankfully condemned more xenophobic Republican traditions to the wilderness, not least the isolationist tradition that flourished in the mid-west.
The other admirable feature of Texas is its incredible creativityits ability to make something out of nothing, and to reinvent itself when times get tough. Texas had few natural resources to recommend it until a wildcatter struck oil in Spindeltop in 1901. Stephen Austin, an early coloniser, called it a wild, howling, interminable solitude.
Most of the land is inhospitable. The Gulf Coast is humid, mosquito-ridden and plagued by torrential rains. The west is desert. The border country is hardscrabble. The plains in the north are racked by winds. But Texans have managed to turn this unwelcoming piece of the earth into a civilised home, taming the heat with air-conditioning and populating the desert with office buildings and mansions.
The ability of Texans to impose their will on a hostile environment is indeed remarkable. For all its ingenuity, though, the state will soon face rather more sophisticated tests. Can it deal with its legacy of pollution, poor planning and growth-at-any-cost? Can it tame its fearsome and often barbaric prison system? And can it do this without losing the will and energy that have made it such a creative place?
The real test for Texas will not be whether it can play a leading role in shaping Americaand so the world. That much is already encoded in demographic and economic trends. It will be whether Texas can become a better place in the process.
Ahem, 2nd? Could someone tell me the largest then?
" from the high-rises of Dallas, where businessmen wear cowboy boots and string ties, ",
proves this idiot has never been to Dallas. I see those outfits at costume parties, and that's about it.
Gosh, I hope not.
God bless Texas.
I guess Texas is in real trouble then....
The answer to these problems? Lower taxes, weaker trade unions, smaller public sector and welfare state. Give us a few years, we'll get it straightened out.