THE PLANK AUGUST 3, 2009
Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.
I don't know what it is about getting a New York Times column, barring deals with the devil to obtain them in the first place. But it seems to be having a corrosive effect on Ross Douthat's analytical skills, as it earlier did for his colleague David Brooks.
Douthat's column today touting Texas as an economic "model citizen" for the nation is just plain wrong. Ezra Klein peforms an efficient smackdown on the idea that Texas is booming while "blue states" are wallowing in economic despair, and just as importantly, reminds us that the Lone Star State is famed for its poor treatment of poor people, which helps it keep the state budget balanced.
But I have a more fundamental beef with Douthat's breezy assumption that state policies have made conservative Texas do well while afflicting "liberal" California. The truth is that state policies have little or no effect on short-term economic trends affecting their populations. Texas and California exist in national and global economies. Unemployment rates in Fresno or El Paso are largely controlled by forces affecting manufacturing exports and imports; prices for housing, oil and gas; and credit availability that have almost nothing to do with the policies of Arnold Schwarzenneger or Rick Perry. Republican-governed Florida is getting hammered, and Democratic-governed Iowa is doing well.
Governors and state legislators do have a big effect on how their constituents are affected by such external forces--on the distribution of wealth, if not its existence--and on that front, regressive Texas has nothing to brag about.
But Ross Douthat's identification of "low-road" economic development strategies as vindicated by the current recession is deeply flawed and dangerous. If the no-regulation regressive-tax approach really represented the keys to the kingdom, then Mississippi and Alabama would have long since become the economic dynamos and social showcases of America. That hasn't happened, and isn't happening, regardless of short-term growth and unemployment rates. With far more resources than its country cousins to the east, Texas has managed to create similar social conditions. Touting the Lone Star State as a lodestar state is a terrible mistake. And as a southerner, I'd have to say that it takes a conservative Yankee to celebrate so unreflectively the South's high ratio of private affluence to public squalor.