Erica Grieder: The TT Interview

Erica Grieder, a senior editor at Texas Monthly and former southwest correspondent for The Economist, got tired of explaining her home state's political quirks to outsiders — so she wrote a book to introduce them to Texas. The San Antonio native authored Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas, which explores the historical roots — and contemporary benefits — of the "Texas Model," the political and economic system that has helped the state rise to prominence.

Grieder, whose book will be released April 23, talked about the past and future of the "Texas Model," its critics and whether the model needs any tweaks. She'll also be talking Texas politics Saturday, April 13, at the San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival.

An abridged transcript of that interview follows.

TT: 
Why did you decide to write this book?

Grieder: I’d always joked about wanting to write a sort of "Texas for Dummies," for people who aren’t dummies, just kind of explaining what the state’s like. I’m sure you’ve noticed there are a lot of people out there that have very strong opinions about what happens here and how terrible things are, and that doesn’t really stir with the experience of actually living in Texas.

During the national economic downturn, I was working for The Economist, writing about politics and the economy, and following this news every day from around the country. Just the discrepancy between how well things were going in this state and the harrowing news we were seeing in pretty much every other state made a big impression on me. So I started to think about the ways that we could extrapolate what’s going on in this state to other states.

TT: What do you think are the main lessons from Texas’ recent history?

Grieder: Well, I think first of all that the model we have in the state has worked really well for the state in a lot of ways. We can go through the various metrics — on the economic side, they’re almost all good — and they’ve been improving at a tremendous pace, especially in the last 10 years. And I think that’s really important not just for the macroeconomy, but for the people in it. We’ve had a lower unemployment rate than the country every month for more than six years — that’s huge. And then on the other side of things — health care, schools, the things we’re usually criticized for lagging in, I don’t think we’re really where we need to be or where we want to be as a state, but I don’t think we’re backsliding or getting worse.

As far as the critics, I would say that a lot of them aren’t that well-informed. A lot of the critiques they’re making are based on prejudices and stereotypes. I tried pretty hard in the book to stay close to the data. You know, I take seriously the concerns that you hear from the left about, how equitable are these outcomes. But I think on balance, there are good outcomes from what you can see for the majority of the state, it’s not just plutocrats getting richer and richer, and everyone else is struggling to feed their family.

TT: Was this partially a reply to Gail Collins?

Grieder: It wasn’t, actually. It was shortly after I signed the contract that I realized that she was writing a book about Texas, too.

In the end, I ended up disagreeing with some of the things she says. But I’m glad there’s room for both perspectives in the discussion of how the state works. I don’t think the state is as bad or has as many problems as she says, and I don’t think the state’s influence in national politics is quite what she says.

TT: How would you categorize the criticism of the state’s economic and political model outside of Texas?

Grieder: There’s two categories — I do travel a lot. I mean, we all know the kind of stereotype that the state is stupid, racist, corrupt, hard-hearted and made up of oil millionaires and billionaires with this huge underclass of hungry Texans. I don’t think that’s true, but a lot of those kind of top-line critiques are pretty easy to rebut.

I guess the other side are the critics who are kind of coming from a more sincere place as far as the concerns they have, but I think there’s a missed opportunity to talk about things that are working well. For example, poverty — I talk about that a lot in the book. I think states should try to mitigate poverty, but I there’s no state that managed to do that successfully in the 20th century. I guess I’m not sure what the better example is of a state that’s done a great job to raise up the working class.

TT: In the book, you talk a lot about the historical foundations of Texas’ attitudes towards government. What surprised you the most in your research?

Grieder: I kind of knew about this, but I hadn’t looked at it this closely. I was surprised by how much the state Constitution had really set a lot of things in motion. I think you see these tendencies emerging from the history of the state – we’re all conditioned by our experience, right? That’s true of places as well as people.

The fact that this document was written in this reactionary mood after Reconstruction, and then established all these restrictions on how the government works, what it can do, how often it meets. That all makes it pretty hard to break the model wholesale. And since it was first ratified, we’ve amended the Constitution hundreds of times, but we’ve never had a movement to change the general view of what the state can do.

TT: If the ‘Texas Model’ comes from unique historical experience, are there parts of it that can be transferred to other states?

Grieder: I think there are elements that can be transferred. You can already see other states that are picking up parts of the Texas playbook, especially in the South and Midwest. You see activists looking at tax policy and economic development issues in Louisiana. A lot of other states are looking at Texas.

There’s a couple advantages to the model. This is a genuinely low-tax, low-spending state. We have the fourth-lowest tax burden in the country, and the fourth-lowest in terms of spending, third in per-capita spending. That has pros and cons, but it helps the effort to — in some cases, deliberately — attract businesses.

I think it also helps that the state has pretty high policy certainty — if you’re a business and you come here, you don’t really have to worry about what the policy situation is going to look like five years from now. Even if the state turns blue, the governor is going to be operating from the same general playbook. These are all things that are worth considering for other states.

It depends on your context, too. The paradigmatic blue state model is probably Massachusetts, and that’s a typical high-tax, high-spending state. That might make sense for them, because they’ve been an affluent, highly educated state the entire time. They’re older than average. They don’t have such a big population of kids they need to educate. They don’t have so much migration from abroad or other states.

TT: As the socioeconomic makeup of Texas changes, is it possible the state moves towards a higher-tax, higher-spending model? Or is the model embedded in Texas’ DNA?

Grieder: I think that would be a bridge too far. I think we’ll end up making some adjustments — you can see that happening now in the current legislative session — there’s a sense that we do need to make investments in water and schools.

I don’t even really hear Democrats calling for that. I think one of the problems with the party right now is that a lot of the reforms they’re talking about would require more revenue. In some cases, quite a bit more revenue. And it’s hard to see how they’re going to get there from here.

TT: But big-name Democrats in the state, like the Castro brothers, are choosing to pick fights over the provision of services.

Grieder: On Medicaid expansion, there’s federal money, but I don’t see how that lasts in the state if the federal money goes away. If you look at the budget now, it’s a small pie, but we already put a bigger slice of the pie towards Medicaid than the national average — than California, even. So if we’re going to try to put more money into Medicaid, unless you’re going to take that out of schools, which I don’t think is a good idea, I don’t know how you’re going to find the money.

You might describe that as a false choice, but it’s the choice that describes the reality of the current situation. A serious debate on more services has to involve the revenue side of it, and right now, it too often doesn’t.

I think with someone like [Mayor Julián] Castro in San Antonio — his push to establish pre-K in the city — I think that was a smart example of what Democrats could do. It was messaged well — the message being, we’re going to take this tax raise and apply it to this service.

TT: You write that the Texas Model needs to be tweaked as we move forward — primarily, that the state needs to dramatically increase resources for education. But you also write that that may be difficult to do in the current system.

Grieder: I think what’s going to happen with education is that the courts are going to make it happen — there’s a constitutional requirement to fund the system adequately.

First of all, you’ve got to restore spending per student to where it was before. You’re also going to have to build more schools, at some point. I’d love to see more, but those are the first two components.

It’s the revenue question, right? It’s a very lean system already. Do we take it from higher ed, Medicare, corrections? I’m just not sure how we get there from here. We would need some kind of new revenue streams.

TT: Would increasing services diminish what works about the "Texas Model"?

Grieder: Limited government is not the same as no government. It’s a very pragmatic state. If there’s a case to be made that we need to invest more in roads or in education, people will do it.

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