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October 31, 2013

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The new vision for America is…Texas? Really?

I SUBSCRIBE TO TIME MAGAZINE, REGARDED BY MANY AS a reliable tool of the “liberal media,” so imagine my shock when I pulled the October 28 issue out of the mailbox and was confronted with a cover story called “The United States of Texas: Why the Lone Star State is America’s Future.”

After recovering from a short fainting fit, I read the story itself. While you have to hand it to Time for putting out an issue destined to be talked about (and purchased), here’s why I disagree with many of the conclusions reached by the author, Tyler Cowan.

Cowan has heavy-duty bona fides; he is the right’s go-to economist of the moment, a tenured professor at George Mason University, a well-known polymath and author of Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, just released last month and already powering up conversations around the globe. 

But Cowan, as he says himself in the Time article, is a free-market advocate and a libertarian, and therefore, his forecasts of the future look pretty dystopian to anyone who doesn’t believe in “I’ve got mine; everyone else feel free to die and decrease the surplus population.” (With apologies to Mr. Charles Dickens.)

In the last chapter of Average is Over, Cowan spells this out: “We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now.”

That’s why it’s no surprise to find Texas on the top of his list as a model for the rest of the country—even when his own article begins by saying: “The state’s social services are thin. Welfare benefits are skimpy. Roughly a quarter of residents have no health insurance. Many of its schools are less than stellar. Property crime rate are high. Rates of murder and other violent crimes are hardly sterling either.”

Now, having read Cowan’s entire article, many of the trends he points to as reasons for the influx of residents into Texas (based on 2010-2011 numbers—as in pre-recession recovery—110,000 in that year) are real. The middle class has been “hollowing out,” as he calls it. The jobs that are being created are primarily lower-sector jobs (with Texas at the top of that dubious tree). Property costs have become beyond the reach of many in some areas.

But where Cowan and I diverge is how we as a country should react to these trends. His version: Hands off, because the free market is shaking down as it will. My version: There is a lot that we can and must do to save the middle class, create better jobs and better-educated workers and as for property costs; even Cowan points to an increasing trend of “less is more” when it comes to housing, citing the many companies building “micro-homes,” even in everything-is-bigger-in Texas. Yes, the decades-old trend of bigger and bigger houses is reversing for the middle class—but in my view, that is increasingly because of choice. Online education, which Cowan touts as a magic bullet, is being shown to be more like the emperor sans clothes. And he continually refers to the Austin/Marfa area in his article—never mind, apparently, that this is exactly the celebrated blue spot in a sea of red.

Here let me digress slightly and mention that Cowan compares what $300,000 will buy in housing in various places in the U.S., using Zillow as a reference. Zillow is the real estate equivalent of Wikipedia as a source and I seriously question his numbers here. He also says, with a straight face, one presumes, “San Francisco will have to become more like Houston when it comes to zoning.” Perhaps when Dallas/Fort Worth freezes over. And also in the we-really-should-have-fact-checked-this corner is the article’s claim that “Over the past 20 years, more than 4 million Californians have moved to Texas,” which Time had to take back on the “Editor’s Desk” page of the November 4 issue, writing penitently, “We misstated an estimate of California migration. About one-third of the more than 4 million people who left the state in the past 20 years moved to Texas.” So, about 1,333,333 people vs. 4 million. But who’s counting?

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October 31, 2013

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