When conservatives and liberals talk about Texas, they are talking about two different things. Conservatives think Texas is important because its booming economy shows how limited government, low taxes and light regulation can create prosperity. Liberals, by contrast, see Texas as the poster child for conservatives’ refusal to provide a sufficient safety net for the poor.
Conservatives point out that a staggering 1.1. million jobs have been created in Texas since 2007. During the same period, the rest of the country lost a cumulative 350,000 jobs. Liberals counter that, when it comes to health care, Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the country and that it has a public school system whose financial structure was declared unconstitutional for failing to provide “substantially equal access” by a state district judge earlier this year. To them, this is a sign of Texas Republicans’ “increasing failure to govern,” as Richard Parker puts it in “Lone Star Nation.”
Mr. Parker takes the liberal view of his native state, and his book is meant to rebut any notion that the Texas model could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the nation. Others have made a similar case: Recall Paul Krugman ’s infamous 2011 proclamation that Texas “offers no useful lessons.” But Mr. Parker’s account is surely the first to try to argue that the state’s booming economy, the so-called Texas Miracle, is mostly the result of “simple dumb luck” and has almost nothing to do with conservative public policy over the past 20 years. He constructs an elaborate and implausible theory positing that Texas’ dramatic job growth and low cost of living are “not the direct result of government policy” but of “deleveraging, diversification, and globalization”—uncontrollable forces, in his view, disconnected from any policies.
The growth of Texas’ cities, for example, Mr. Parker attributes to “an ever-expanding diversification of the economy driven by sheer population growth.” Globalization, therefore, is the real force behind population and job growth, and Texas, he argues, has simply benefited from a “fortuitous intersection of timing and geography.”
Well, Texas has certainly benefited from the energy boom, and no politician could possibly take credit for the ocean of oil under Texas. Yet Mr. Parker manages to get through 75 pages before even mentioning it. At no point does he offer a full discussion of how fracking has flooded swaths of Texas countryside with jobs and transformed sleepy west Texas towns like Midland and Odessa into 21st-century boomtowns.
It’s an astonishing omission and reveals a troubling blindness on Mr. Parker’s part. California hasn’t seen this kind of boom, yet it has the largest shale-oil reserves in America. Instead it is Texas that is now producing 36% of all U.S. oil. Could it have something to do with the role of state government—not in creating jobs outright but in allowing markets to work? The author doesn’t even ask, claiming instead that the narrative of conservative policies creating an economic success story is “entirely false,” nothing more than a “tall, Texas tale.”
Mr. Parker’s thesis about Texas is built on a basic misconception of how government interacts with the economy. He claims, for example, that Texas’ lack of an income tax is “balanced out by the fact that it depends heavily upon property taxes and sales taxes, among the highest in the nation, to fill government coffers.” Yet mounting evidence shows that states with no income tax grow faster and create more jobs than states that impose an income tax. Over the past decade, the nine states with no income tax have outperformed the nine highest income-tax-rate states in gross state product, employment and tax revenue (both state and local).
The author also makes no mention of the overall size of Texas’ government, which is paltry compared with New York and California. Indeed, California extracts 42% more in total state income than Texas does. California could abolish its income tax, or its sales tax, and still collect more taxes than Texas.
Mr. Parker has no time for such pernicious details. He is optimistic about Texas’ future—but only if government inserts itself more actively in the lives of Texans. The three major challenges facing Texas, in his view, are “demographic change, climate change, and upward mobility.” The first contention is particularly telling. As the state’s Hispanic population, now the second-largest in the country, grows, liberals like Mr. Parker believe they can turn Texas blue by offering more taxpayer-funded largess and engaging in identity politics. In other words: Texas is important to the extent that it can be turned into California.
Early on in the book, he trots out the tired theory that a growing Hispanic population heralds the end of the Republican Party in Texas, averring that “the writing was on the wall by the spring of 2014.” Unfortunately for Mr. Parker, his book came out the same month that GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott won 44% of the Hispanic vote and half of the male Hispanic vote.
The truth is that you won’t turn the Lone Star State blue unless you convince voters that free markets and light government could never have conjured a Texas miracle. For Texans who have borne witness to that miracle, Mr. Parker’s argument will take a tremendous leap of faith.
Mr. Davidson is the director of the center for health-care policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.