By Bruce Jacobs

Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas by Erica Grieder (Public Affairs Press, $26.99, Hardcover, 304 pp.)

Why do so many otherwise sane people migrate to Texas when we all know it’s full of gun-slinging Jimmy-driving rednecks, big-hair big-hat cattle and oil tycoons, and mush mouth politicians to boot?

New Texas immigrants are moving down from as far north as Canada, sneaking across the 1200 mile Mexican border to the south, spilling out of broken New Orleans wards from the east, and running from Latino-bashing Arizona on the west. Throw in a bunch of Norwegian oil consultants and flotillas of Vietnamese fisherman, and you’ve got a rapidly growing population that skews 10% younger than the United States average.

Fastest Growing State in America

Six of our twenty largest cities are in Texas, and three of those make Forbes magazine’s ten fastest growing cities list. A 2012 Rice University study suggests that Houston is now the most ethnically diverse metro area in the country, and the Texas economy is bigger than that of Mexico or South Korea (giants Samsung and Hyundai notwithstanding).

And that’s to say nothing of sports where Texas fields two pro football teams (including “America’s team” the Dallas Cowboys), three NBA teams (including this year’s playoff-leading San Antonio Spurs), and two major league ball clubs. When it comes to college football, rarely a year passes when the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, or Texas Christian University aren’t in the top ten, often a couple of them at a time.

How did this historically poor, rural, inhospitable, and backward state become…well, become so damn popular and successful?

A Native’s Assessment

Erica Grieder packs the whole story in her entertaining and informative first book, Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right. Grieder is a senior editor at “Texas Monthly,” former southwest correspondent for “The Economist,” Columbia University graduate in philosophy, and a military brat who spent her early years with career Air Force parents in San Antonio. She may not be a born and bred Texan, but then few of its citizens are –– and that, she suggests, is just one of the keys to her adopted state’s success: everyone is pretty much welcome as long as he pulls his economic weight.

“Texas may be the only place where people actually still have bootstraps, an we expect folks to pull themselves up by them,” San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro said in his 2012 Democrat Convention keynote speech, and Grieder’s book is proof of it.

The Territory Formerly Known as ‘Tejas’

The Texas story begins when the territory, like Mexico, was loosely part of the Spanish empire. In the 1820s Mexico tossed the Spanish and included “Tejas” among its northern states; that is, until Santa Ana and his army of 2,000 wiped out the 200 rebellious Tejanos under William Travis at the little Alamo mission. Then “Remember the Alamo” became the impetus for Sam Houston to rally a ragtag revolutionary Texas army in 1835 and break free from Mexico to become the Republic of Texas (the only state other than Hawaii ever to have been its own country).

Andrés Tijerina, a director of Austin’s Tejano Monument, points out that “if it wasn’t for the Tejano heritage, Texas today would probably be Ohio.”

Grieder keeps her history relatively brief and accessible but emphasizes that the early kick-ass independence of Texans still permeates the population – even if they have just arrived from Detroit or Chihuahua. It’s another one of those things that has nurtured today’s Texas “miracle.”

The Politics of Prayer

Chapter by chapter, Grieder works through the key elements that entwined to create the special Texas DNA. Politics, or the lack thereof, played a big role. As a young, sparsely populated country, Texas under Sam Houston was happy to be annexed by the United States. However, it was not so happy to be browbeaten in post-Civil War reconstruction under General Phillip Sheridan who famously said of his Texas assignment, “If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in hell.”

Wary of meddling and “foreign” government, Texans created a state constitution that effectively inhibited modernization by requiring super-majority legislature approval of amendments to be followed by a simple majority popular referendum.

As a result it is one of only four states with no income tax. Its “part time” legislature meets only 140 days every other year. And that seems to suit Texas voters just fine.

“The government might not do much, but at the same time it doesn’t meddle with people that much, nor does it ask for much in terms of taxes,” Greider writes. When confronted with persistent drought in 2011, Governor Rick Perry’s solution was to declare three “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

Weak Party Loyalties

If regulation plays a low key role in Texas, party politics is even less important. Since 1876 all but four of the 36 governors have been Democrats.

In 1950 Democrat President Truman rescinded the special nine mile shoreline ownership status that Texas had negotiated when joining the USA––thus effectively seizing a fortune in oil and gas gulf royalties for the federal government.

In retaliation then Governor Allan Shivers signed a law allowing candidates for office to file for more than one party. He switched to the Republican Party and ran against himself as a Democrat. True to their status quo ways, the voters elected him 2-1 as a Democrat. Even today, the difference between parties is not significant since the legislature doesn’t do much anyway.

Changing Demographics

Grieder doesn’t ignore the growing religious right and Tea Party activists among the Republican majority (“As people poured into the state, God inevitably followed”), but that is balanced by the typically Democrat leaning growth in Hispanic and young voters.

Austin, the state capital and home of the University of Texas, tends to be more political, but Grieder notes with tongue-in-cheek that “half the residents work in the public sector and the other half are in bands.”

As the home of “SXSW,” Austin is notoriously self-satisfied. Grieder quotes local music critic Michael Corcoran for his take on his city’s population: “A movie about the Austin mindset was called ‘Slacker’ because ‘Lazy and Full of Shit’ was too hard to market.” She sums up the Texas political electorate as “pragmatic, fiscally conservative, socially moderate, and slightly disengaged” – not much different from that of the whole country.

Seizing the Bull by the Horns

Grieder attributes most of the singular Texas success story to its unabashed support of economic activity. If you start off poor and ignored by the rest of the country (“When New Yorkers and Chicagoans were neck-deep in bathtub gin, people in Texas were still bumping along on donkeys”), you grab hold of every opportunity that comes your way.

For Texans, that good fortune came first in the form of wide-open cattle land. The stockyards of Abilene fed a hungry country from coast to coast. Good cowboys and cattle ranchers got rich while the paramilitary Texas Rangers protected their herds, land, and livelihoods. However, Grieder debunks the theory that “Texans are big on law and order. This is only half true. They do like order, but they’ve never had a particular talent for law.”

When other range land opened across the west, the cattle business waned. But oil was discovered in 1901 on the Spindletop salt dome in Beaumont, and a second boom was underway. Texans are nothing if not pragmatic, so the legislators quickly instituted one of the first anti-trust laws in the country. This effectively blocked John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil from coming in to scoop up all the oil…and left a whole bunch of native Texans rich and in charge of an industry that is now the largest employer in the state.

Everyone Gets a Piece

Contrary to the postcard image of Texas as all oil and cattle and nothing else, the state has leveraged tax incentives and federal money to build a much broader economy of high tech (Dell, Texas Instruments), manufacturing (Caterpillar, Toyota), aerospace (Boeing, Bell Helicopter), biotech, life sciences, alternative energy…you name it and Texas has a piece of it; maybe the biggest piece.

What’s good for business is good for Texas, so the state has always been happy to take government defense, military, and research money…as long as it doesn’t come with too many strings attached. As a result, Texas rode out the Great Recession just fine, thank you.

Even the housing crash on 2007 was mitigated by lending laws that “were surprisingly strict, at least relative to the laws that other states had which stipulated that people had an inalienable right to buy as much of a McMansion as they wanted even if the application was scribbled in crayon.”

With all these jobs and all this money rolling in, one might think Texas would spend more on government social services; but no, it’s third from the bottom on per capita state spending, Grieder reminds us. Although Texans do embrace private charity, donating more than $10 billion in 2008 and ranking second in “median contributions from discretionary income” as measured by the “Chronicle of Philanthropy,” it’s not clear how much of that trickles down.

Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right is full of tidbits illustrating the apparent contradictory nature of Texas behavior and bluster, but Grieder believes that this is not only part of its DNA, but also part of its charm and success. It’s a big place and filling fast.

Texas will inevitably change, but for now it is generally full of people “who are reasonably credible observers and arbiters of their own self-interest…can largely be trusted with their own affairs…and have the right to do what they want, for the most part, unless it’s going to hurt someone else,” she writes. “That sounds a lot like what America is supposed to be…or could be, because “despite its idiosyncrasies, today’s Texas looks like the future United States.”

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