It is unfathomable that yet another Texas blowhard governor has emerged as a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. The persistent appeal of the mythology of Texas as a model for the nation defies the lessons of logic and experience, and yet here we are with Rick Perry, a George W. Bush look-alike, as a prime contender to once again run our nation into the ground.
To begin with, Texas is not and never will be a model for the nation unless the other states discover similarly rich deposits of oil and natural gas that account for one-third of jobs and supply 40 percent of tax revenues within those states. If Texas energy receipts and jobs helped float Gov. Bush’s reputation, they have been nothing short of miraculous for Perry’s tenure. The price of oil rose from $25 a barrel when Lt. Gov. Perry replaced the newly elected President Bush to $147 in 2008 and has stayed at more than $80 a barrel since, to the dismay of anyone who has to buy gasoline.
In addition, thanks to breakthroughs in oil field technology that Perry had nothing to do with, there have been controversial new drilling techniques that have vastly expanded the exploitation of gas and oil reserves, producing many of the new jobs that the Texas governor claims. For a relatively ineffectual governor, in a state in which the part-time Legislature holds the power, to take credit for this job boom is as ludicrous as a Saudi prince bragging of his entrepreneurial skills as the source of royal wealth.
Unfortunately, the boom in the energy industry has not spread to those in the state stuck in less lucrative sectors of the economy. Texas remains tied with Mississippi for the largest number of workers earning wages equal to or less than the federal minimum wage. This is particularly true for the majority of nonwhite Texans, who account for a good portion of the state population increase that Perry brags about. It will be interesting to see how he handles the immigration issue in light of the fact that the manufacturing sector, particularly automobiles, is dependent on robust traffic of parts and workers across the border from Mexico.
It should be added that much of the non-energy job growth is in the public sector, which has been in part financed by the federal government that Perry lambastes. As the Austin American-Statesman newspaper points out: “… [A]lmost half of the state’s job growth the past two years was led by education, health care and government, the sectors of the economy that will now take a hit as federal stimulus money runs out and the state’s 8% cut in state spending translates into thousands of layoffs among state workers and teachers in the coming months.”
There is, however, something very important in the Texas experience that could serve as a model for the nation, and that is the state’s success in avoiding the worst effects of the housing crash. Texas has not suffered anything like the crushing foreclosure crisis that is the main source of joblessness in states from Florida to California. But Perry surely will not dwell on the reasons for Texas having escaped that fate, because his mantra of less government regulation doesn’t work in this instance. If lax environmental and zoning codes were the secret, neighboring Arizona and Nevada would not be the housing basket cases that they are. The difference for Texas is one that most free-market conservatives ignore: It was precisely the tight government regulation of the housing market that spared Texas a similar fate.
From the first days of statehood in 1845, Texas has maintained the strictest laws on home mortgages in the nation. The Texas constitution’s blanket ban on home equity loans, born of outrage over previous land grabs by banks, has been eased substantially over the years, but a firm commitment that the total amount in loans on a house not exceed 80 percent of appraised value, and other consumer-friendly restrictions on mortgage lenders, saved Texas from the home mortgage disaster visited upon many other states.
That put a crimp in the wild lending that fed the securitization of home mortgages that still proves to be so toxic to the nation’s economic recovery outside Texas. As a bit of irony, it was U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who pioneered the passage of federal legislation preventing government oversight of those mortgage-backed securities. Perhaps because Texas homeowners were better protected than those in the rest of the nation, the Texan Bush managed to be splendidly indifferent during his presidency to the dire consequence of the housing bubble.
Indeed, how can Perry seek the presidency largely on the basis of his Texas governorship without conceding that it is his Texas predecessor, himself purely a product of Texas state government, who is far more responsible for the economic meltdown than the current president?
Barack Obama “inherited a mess,” economist Nouriel Roubini—made famous by his 2005 prediction of the economic collapses, which Bush ignored—told The Wall Street Journal, adding, “We’re lucky that this Great Recession is not turning into another Great Depression.” In case his point was missed, Roubini reminded of the obvious: “We destroyed our fiscal sustainability before [President Obama] came to power. … We had guns and butter and low taxes. It doesn’t work, if you want guns and butter, you should have high taxes during wars.”
Bush, as Perry is doing, complained about big government in every area except lavish spending on the military-industrial complex, an important part of the Texas economy at more than $200 billion a year, double what it was a decade ago. But that’s all the hypocrisy we have time for in one column.