United States of Texas?

When I die I may not go to heaven
I don’t know if they let cowgirls in
If they don’t just let me go to Texas, Boy!
Texas is as close as I’ve been.
                                 – sung by Tanya Tucker (c. 1975)


Time magazine’s cover story this week (October 28, 2013) is entitled “The United States of Texas: Why the Lone Star State is America’s Future.” Authored by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, it relates cogent reasons why Texas is prospering and its population is increasing at the expense of other, mostly east and west coast states. Cowen styles himself a libertarian, not surprising as the long tenured Walter Williams is also at that institution. What is surprising is Time’s somewhat approving editorial introduction by its new managing editor Nancy Gibbs. The magazine has been known for the past several decades as leaning portside in such matters.

The article starts with the list of supposed horribles the coastal left likes to sling at Texas. The climate is brutal; there were 40 days of over 100 degree temperatures at Dallas-Fort Worth this year. The state’s social services are thin. Its welfare benefits are skimpy. Over a quarter of its people lack health insurance. Public schools leave much to be desired. Violent crime is high.

The obvious question is, then, why are more Americans moving to Texas than to any other state?

Professor Cowen’s belief is that these migrants are being moved by the major economic forces that are reshaping America’s economy as a whole. The middle class is being hollowed out elsewhere and many Americans are looking for a radically cheaper way to live and do business.

Other societies have traditionally defined the middle class – the bourgeoisie that Marxism had such contempt for – as professionals, skilled tradesmen, manufacturers, and merchants who generally employed members of the working class. The upper echelon was reserved for the landed aristocracy, mainly inheritors. The lower classes were semi- and unskilled workers, low-level supervisory personnel, and, in rural areas, peasants who worked someone else’s land. The middle class in America has been defined primarily by income in a certain middle range, and not necessarily the occupation by which it is earned.

Thus, the middle class is being squeezed on the coasts and in many parts of the interior in America by rising costs of living and stagnant wages. The higher costs of living are a result of housing prices, more than anything else. These prices, as well as others, are affected by increased regulation, as well as crowded conditions that make land prices astronomical in some places. To illustrate, Cowen compares what kind of living quarters $300,000 will buy you: in San Francisco, a 210 sq. ft., one bath loft; in Chicago, a 900 sq. ft., one bed, one bath apartment; in Austin, a 3,000 sq. ft., 4 bed, 3 bath house. There are places in Texas the same that could be had for a third less.

At the same time, middle class income throughout the nation is being stunted by globalization, high technology, automation, and a general failure by so many to respond to those changes by upgrading their skills, or acquiring them in the first place. Texas creates more jobs that any other state. Many are high skilled, and high paying. Texas does create more low-paying jobs. But Texas has a low cost of living compared with other states. It has cheap land, and a lot of it; cheap produce, and a lot of it. And cheap labor? Well, yes. But every low-paying job is an entree into something better for someone with few skills and a lot of gumption. Anyway an income that would strap the San Francisco loft-dweller would provide a fairly nice living for a Texas home-owner.

One other aspect that Cowen touches upon, but does not provide much elaboration is that migrants are not the typical greedy, lazy, and scared populace that historian Ian Morris hypothesizes drive historical movement. They are generally adventuresome and not adverse to risk. Immigrants to America have not been the “tired, poor, and huddled masses” of the unfortunate quote on the Stature of Liberty, but the individuals of oppressive foreign societies, tired of being poor and huddled who had the courage to strike out and better themselves elsewhere. Those coming to Texas, are immigrants on steroids (to use a tiresome, but apropos metaphor).

Or should I call them high-octane adventurers. Texas is certainly among the top petroleum producers in the United States, and is in the forefront of the natural gas production boom. There is a fantastic amount of opportunity in that area, particularly for engineers and highly skilled technicians, as well as speculators and investors.

Of course, there is the inevitable mope who complains; who is contemptuous of opportunists because he thinks that those who had the same opportunity but failed to make something of it are ill-used by those who did. Cowen quotes one Scott McCown, a University of Texas law professor who maintains that Texas prosperity is not the result of low taxes and lax regulation, but because of geography and geology. McCown laments that the economy favors the wealthy, and predicts that in a democratic society, it will ultimately be rejected.

Perhaps so. Well, it can be irritating, but we do have our McCowns. They often remind us to be vigilant toward the looter and moochers out there lest we become too complacent. But I believe McCown is wrong. Geology and geography are important; I would be the last to deny that. There are, however, numerous places in the world that have as great or greater natural resources and the favorable location to build a powerful economy that have remained pathetic backwaters. It takes more than just those resources; it takes knowledge, wisdom, and initiative of human beings to exploit the resources. A Texas example is the city of Dallas. It was for a long time, and may still be, the largest city in the world not located on a navigable waterway. It is not located proximate to any great agricultural land, and except for the only recently discovered Barnett Shale gas field, it had no mineral resources to speak of. As Holland McCombs wrote for Fortune in 1949, “Dallas doesn’t owe a thing to accident, nature or inevitability. It is what it is . . . because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way.” If this kind of economy is rejected by a democratic society, it will be democracy that is doomed. Entrepreneurs and visionaries thrive under a measured and rational democracy; i.e., democracy that is restrained by the priority of individual rights, especially property rights, over the will of the fifty percent plus one. Lazy, greedy, and scared people do not do well under democracy. Ultimately, they degenerate into mob rule and then evolve into a dictatorship or an all powerful oligarchy – Nineteen-Eighty Four or Brave New World.

For everyone outside the Lone Star State with vision, boldness of enterprise, and determination, and who is tired of being frustrated and pushed around, come to Texas. Everybody else may go to hell.

For Professor Cowen’s article see Time Magazine 10/28/13 here.

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