- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Erica Grieder’s “Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas” (PublicAffairs, 288 pages, notes, index, $26.99) is the latest entry in a series of books and articles countering the largely East Coast liberal party line that that there is no “Texas Miracle” — that the jobs created in the Lone Star State have been minimum wage no-future positions, that the state is governed by knuckle-dragging Evangelicals, that Texas represents a “What’s The Matter With Kansas” situation of people voting against their own interests, etc., etc.
Grieder, in a style and format that reminds me of the late, great John Gunther’s “Inside” series (“Inside Europe,” “Inside U.S.A.”, etc) writes that while it’s true that evangelicals play a role in Texas (although not as big a one as outsiders claim), most Texans believe in separation of church and state (dating from the days before the creation of the Texas Republic in 1836 when Mexico required all Texans to be Roman Catholics) and the United States has a great deal to learn from Texas. She cites experts who say that today’s Texas may represent what the U.S. will be 20 years from now.
Back in January (link: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/54492) I reviewed Chuck DeVore’s “The Texas Model” which had as its goal much the same debunking as Grieder’s. DeVore, a transplanted California state legislator who works for the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation — a conservative think-tank — has just published an article that “myth busts” comparisons between California and Texas that he considers flawed or outright erroneous (Link: http://www.texaspolicy.com/sites/default/files/documents/2013-04-PP20-Te…).
Grieder and DeVore have a lot of work to do to counteract the mythological Texas created by writers for influential publications like The New York Times. Writers point to Texas’ death row, the busiest in the country (Virginia is the runner-up), neglecting to mention that California still has the death penalty in contrast to, say, benighted West Virginia, which abolished it in the 1960s.
With a brief warts and all historical look at the creation of Texas in the 1830s from a far from Mexico City and almost unpopulated Mexican province, Grieder traces the political history of a state that was always larger than life. From its rowdy beginnings, Texas has combined a long-standing suspicion of government intrusion with a passion for business. Looking to the present, Grieder assesses the unique mix of policies on issues like immigration, debt, taxes, regulation, and energy, which together have sparked a bonafide Texas Miracle of job growth. While acknowledging that it still has plenty of twenty-first-century problems to face, she finds in Texas a model of governance whose power has been drastically underestimated. Her book is a fascinating exploration of America’s underrated powerhouse.
You’ll learn how the creation of the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) saved the state from losing the benefit of oil discoveries from Spindletop in 1901 to later ones throughout much of the state — and even served as a model for the much maligned Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that was founded in 1960. Texans may be suspicious of government, with a legislature that meets for 140 days every two years, but Grieder writes that Texans are nobody’s fools, that the TRC represented a well-thought-out concept.
(From the Wikipedia entry for the TRC: “Established by the Texas Legislature in 1891, it is the state’s oldest regulatory agency and began as part of the …Progressive Era. From the 1930s to the 1960s it largely set world oil prices, but was displaced by OPEC after 1973. In 1984, the federal government took over transportation regulation for railroads, trucking and buses, but the Railroad Commission kept its name. With an annual budget of $79 million, it now focuses entirely on oil, gas, mining, propane, and pipelines, setting allocations for production each month.”)
Grieder presents the best explanation I’ve seen of how once reliably Democratic Texas over the past 40 years or so has become an equally reliable GOP stalwart. It’s not as simple as most commentators have painted it, and Texan Grieder puts the transition in context. She even discusses the (remote) possibility that Texas may once again be a battleground state. From my five years of living in Texas, I find that a very remote possibility indeed. There are plenty of Hispanics in Texas, but many of them are much more conservative than commentators on the East Coast realize. I live in a majority Hispanic county — Calhoun — that regularly voted for Ron Paul for Congress in what was then the 14th District stretching from Galveston to the suburbs of Corpus Christi. Grieder writes that this relaxed attitude toward immigration is one reason why the Texas GOP gets a much higher percentage of the Latino/Hispanic vote than its national counterpart.
In “Big, Hot, Cheap and Right” you’ll learn that:
> Texas, with about 26 million residents, has a larger economy than much more populous South Korea or Mexico.
> From 2009 to 2011, Texas created 40 percent of the nation’s net new jobs and in 2012 it accounted for 8.7 percent of the nation’s economic output. Meanwhile it’s been a net contributor to federal tax receipts.
> While oil is still a major driver of the Texas economy, the state has more installed wind power capacity than any other state, including California.
> Unlike strident Arizona (sorry, I love you Grand Canyon State!) Texas, which became a minority-majority state in 2005 has a relatively relaxed immigration policy, which Grieder says may have been Gov. Rick Perry’s downfall in the 2012 GOP primaries.
> If Texas is so bad, why do people keep moving there? Six of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in Texas and millions of people are moving there. In fact, one-third of its total population was born somewhere else.
> Contrary to popular belief, Grieder says that Perry isn’t afraid to take federal money when it makes sense, like when Texas A&M won a $176 million dollar federal grant for bioscience development last year. Too, Perry isn’t afraid to pick winners and losers by focusing on and investing in technology clusters like aerospace, defense and biotech with tools like the Texas Emerging Technology Fund.
About the author
Erica Grieder is a senior editor at Texas Monthly. From 2007-2012, she covered Texas as the southwest correspondent for The Economist, to which she still contributes. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Spectator, the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the New Republic. She lives in Austin.