Jul 19 2012

As Texas Goes by Gail Collins

Meredith Simons

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"You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas."

Davy Crockett supposedly uttered these words in 1835, when the people of Tennessee declined to re-elect the frontiersman to another term in Congress. Crockett didn't last long in Texas; Santa Ana's army dispatched him at the Alamo the following year. But his words certainly did. Almost two centuries later, the phrase is proudly emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs for sale across the Lone Star State.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins must find this phrase—and Texans' delight in it—pretty rich, as she believes that Texas is hell, at least for certain people. In As Texas Goes, Collins, who covered the Tea Party in that state in 2009, argues that policymakers—or rather, the businesses that pay the lobbyists who pay the policymakers—have spent the last several decades turning Texas into a haven for the wealthy and the well-connected, while leaving an enormous underclass to fend for itself, without adequate social services, decent health care, or even rudimentary sex ed.

Indeed, the statistics are dismal: the state with one of the nation's highest birth rates also has some of its worst schools. Texas students rank forty-sixth in the nation in average SAT scores, forty-seventh in literacy, and forty-ninth in verbal SAT scores. These kids are more likely to be uninsured than children in any other state, and they're breathing some of the country's dirtiest air.

Meanwhile, someone with a mental illness is more likely to end up incarcerated than in treatment, and Houston, Texas's largest city, has almost a million uninsured residents who go unseen by medical professionals every year. "Everything's bigger in Texas," a Texas food bank director tells Collins, "including our poverty and hunger problems."

But despite its Texas-sized gaps in social services, the Lone Star State has been showered with praise from conservative quarters for being one of the few states capable of creating jobs since 2007. Texans are famous for being friendly, particularly business-friendly, and the state's part-time legislature has devoted quite a lot of time to tort reform and deregulation in the last couple of decades.

Collins argues that Texas's rosy job numbers have less to do with actual job creation than they do with the fact that Texas pays cash (as opposed to tax credits) to businesses that relocate. So Texas is creating fewer jobs than it is moving existing ones in from other states—and inflating estimates of their economic impact for press-release purposes. Many of those jobs weren't that great anyway, Collins adds: 37 percent of the jobs added in Texas in 2010 paid below the minimum wage. And although Texas has a reputation as a low-tax state, its lack of an income tax (and accompanying high sales taxes) make it "a high-tax state for low-income workers." The entire nation has been watching the gap between "the privileged minority and the struggling majority grow," she says, "and Texas has been doing way more than its share to keep pushing us in that direction."

According to Collins, the fact that Texas is systematically stiffing a huge portion of its population shouldn't just worry residents of the Lone Star State. This is because when Texas politicians aren't nattering about secession, they're trying to remake the rest of the United States in their own image. "Texas politicians and business leaders have tried to define the debate on growing the economy," she says, while "Texas politicians played central roles in the deregulation of financial markets and the near elimination of energy conservation as a national policy." And it's true that a state that so fiercely prides itself on having once been an independent nation has been extremely influential in the running of ours for the past quarter century.

Tracing Texas's outsized political power, Collins starts with Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas, a Democrat-turned-Republican who championed the deregulation of credit swaps that paved the way for the subprime meltdown. Then there's Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, Texas congressmen who each took a turn at running the House in the 90s, and who Collins credits with turning that institution into "the partisan battlefield we all know and loathe today."

Finally, let's not forget those presidents who, despite their East-Coast origins, claimed Texas as their home, then went on to win the White House and start a handful of wars. Collins, however, is less interested in Texas presidents' military strategy than in their educational philosophy. Schools across the country, she says, have been "remade, reorganized, and sometimes totally upended under a federal law based on Texas education reform." The test-happy accountability regime pioneered in Texas under then-governor George W. Bush became a model for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the charter school movement his administration helped incubate has only expanded since he left office.

But while Collins makes a compelling case for Texas's oversized influence on national politics in the first few years of the millennium, she's less convincing when arguing that Texas will go on to lead America by bad example. "Texas runs everything," she complains, (emphasis hers). But there's a problem with her tense: while Texans might have run (emphasis mine) everything an administration ago, they're hardly holding the reins now.

Tellingly, the meatiest part of her book is subtitled "How Texas Changed the Nation"—past tense. The part titled "Where We're Going," in which she argues that "we've seen the future, and it's Texas," is exactly one chapter long, and relies largely on the argument that Texas is important to America's future because its population is huge and growing.

Texas certainly has a lot of people in it (and plenty of space for more), but the idea that Texas leaders are still conspiring to turn the entire United States into a carbon copy of the Lone Star State just doesn't line up with reality. The swaggering Texas congressmen who led the Republican Revolution have either retired (Gramm), been disgraced (Rick Perry), or retired in disgrace (DeLay). One exception is Armey, who brought his boots back to Washington to lead the Tea Party as the chairman of FreedomWorks. The most high-profile member of Texas' current congressional delegation is Ron Paul, a seventy-six-year-old doctor who has inspired a lot of bumper stickers but pushed through very little actual legislation.

And looking at the political landscape now, Collins' argument is even less convincing. The Bushes have slunk from the spotlight. The White House is occupied by an internationally-raised president who's filled the West Wing with a bunch of buddies from Chicago, one of whom is issuing No Child Left Behind waivers at a furious pace. The president's rival for the White House is a Mormon from Massachusetts.

This points towards the deeper problem of the book: One gets the sense that Collins was banking on a Perry candidacy. If Perry and his incredible hair were still in the race, Collins's book about the perils of hopping in a hell-bound handbasket along with the Lone Star State would have an urgency that it lacks now.

That, however, doesn't mean that As Texas Goes isn't worth a read. Whether Texans are running the country or not, they're certainly worth writing a book about, if only because of the antics in which they're regularly involved. And Collins tells those stories with gusto. For example, while describing the lawless Texas savings and loans that anticipated the deregulation of big banks and the subprime mortgage crisis, she pauses to reflect on the fact that, "using S & L funds to hire a prostitute to entertain a bank regulator wasn't a bribe if the regulator was unable to rise to the occasion."

But despite being billed as "one of the most explosive and timely political books in years" As Texas Goes isn't likely to alter the political conversation. Though Collins offers a sharp critique of Texas policy, her assertion of a direct connection between Texas policy and federal policy, at least at this point in our political history, is weak. The most trenchant part of her argument affects only those people—Texas policymakers—who couldn't care less what a New York Times columnist thinks of their state. If they can be roused to respond at all, they'll probably just tell her to go to hell.

Meredith Simons is a New Orleans-based writer and one-time Texas politics reporter. Her work has appeared in Slate and newspapers in Houston, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.

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