For the last few weeks, I've been unable to get a startling statistic out of my head: Since the recession officially ended, Texas has created more than 4 of every 10 new jobs in America.
That's right, Texas: the reddest of red states, home to gun lovers and school textbooks that openly question whether the Founding Fathers intended for the separation of church and state. I am no ideologue. Still, whenever I get political, I tend to tilt reflexively to the left, making the jobs figure a bit disconcerting at first.
But there's no escaping it. The number is real. Which means that if you care about putting people back to work at a time when nearly 14 million in this country are unemployed, maybe Texas has something to teach us.
Unfortunately, that's not the posture many commentators have taken. Instead, when the data from Texas emerged — touted first by Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas — conservatives were quick to celebrate, embracing the jobs tally as powerful evidence of the superiority of Republican ideas as well as proof that Texas Gov. Rick Perry would make a good president. But that's overly simplistic.
Meanwhile, those on the liberal end of the spectrum immediately set out to shoot the numbers down. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, for instance, held up a giant bologna and mocked the notion of a "Texas miracle." That view, however, is too cavalier.
So what's actually happening?
First, the basics. According to the Dallas Fed, Texas generated 43% of the net new jobs in the U.S. from June 2009 through May 2011 — an enormous share when you consider that the Lone Star State accounts for about 8% of the nation's economy. (Critics, including Maddow, have been quick to note that the unemployment rate in Texas, at 8%, falls in the middle of the pack among the states. Yet total employment is a much more telling and reliable statistic than is the jobless rate.)
Aspects of the Texas economy are unusual, if not unique, and it will be difficult or impossible for other states to replicate them. For example, the energy industry is booming right now, as are agricultural commodities destined for export — a boon for a huge cotton and beef producer like Texas.
What's more, thorny tradeoffs surely exist. Texas is attracting businesses, in part, because it has low taxes. But that, in turn, makes for a smaller safety net, which is one reason Texas has a high incidence of poverty and, compared with every other state, the biggest proportion of its population without health insurance. There are also serious questions about the quality of jobs in Texas. A "right to work" state, it is tied with Mississippi for having the biggest percentage of workers paid at or below the minimum wage.
But even with these significant caveats, Texas has long been the most robust jobs engine in the country, and its policies and practices deserve deeper reflection. Some say, for example, that an increase in education funding 25 years ago lifted the quality of the workforce. "That set the table for job expansion," Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Mitchell Schnurman has asserted. (Budget pressures in Texas are now forcing education spending to go in the other direction.)
Also deserving of further exploration are the strict lending guidelines that Texas banks instituted after the S&L crisis of the 1980s. Those standards spurred institutions to keep larger capital reserves and take on fewer problem mortgages than were seen elsewhere in the country. As a result, the state emerged relatively unscathed from the most recent real estate meltdown.
At the same time — and this, of course, is the tough part for those on the left to swallow — it is clear that the state's limits on taxes, regulations and lawsuits are contributing to the job machine. "The most important thing I think that's happened to us is tort reform," Fisher, the Dallas Fed president, has said. He added that when John Deere and other companies have decided to hire in Texas, they've been largely driven by steps the state has taken to cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits and to make it harder to bring product liability and class-action cases.
For those whose knee-jerk instinct is to dump on such logic, they would do well here to consider the source. Fisher served in President Carter's Treasury Department and as a high-ranking trade official for President Clinton, and was a two-time Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Although the former investment banker is certainly not an ardent leftie, he is no right-wing zealot either.
To be sure, Texas is not without lots of problems. And its remarkable employment growth is not without attendant concerns. But for those on the left to dismiss the state's jobs story out of hand, just because Republicans have embraced it as a showpiece, is counterproductive and foolish.
Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He is working on a new book about how the social contract between employer and employee in America has changed since the end of World War II.