Illustration by Jesse Lenz/ photo from NewsCom
In his quest for the presidency, Texas Governor Rick Perry says three things: His state's economy is better than America's. Low taxes and small government are the reasons. He gets the credit.
Almost none of that is true.
The Texas economy isn't stronger than the national economy, and it may be fundamentally weaker. Poverty is increasing much faster in the state than it is across the country. Despite Perry's chief campaign message — that thanks to him, Texans have damn near too many jobs to go around — unemployment in the state isn't bucking any trends. In fact, it's at an all-time high.
Perry's narrative is attractive from afar but crumbling on close inspection. And its foundation is just as wobbly. When the Republican contenders (and the media covering them) talk about taxes, it's not a matter of if Texas' are low but how low they are — and whether Perry played any role in making them that way. But lost in that concession is the fact that Texas' taxes are not, on the whole, among the country's lowest. At best the state's in the middle of the pack in terms of the actual tax burden on its citizens, and it's actually more expensive than most in business taxes. He's right that it's a small-government state: lots and lots of small government.
As for that government-is-the-enemy card he keeps playing: Perry's personal political biography includes episodes of naked disdain for local prerogatives, leaning instead toward a top-down governance style that at times has alienated both farm folks and city dwellers, including some Republicans.
But critics who don't know Perry well, including those obsessing over his recent oratorical flubs, have said one thing about him that is not true, according to those who have faced him in battle: He's no lightweight. Enter the ring assuming that and you could wind up on the mat counting stars.
"When we see him govern, he's awful," says Jason Stanford, a campaign consultant who ran former Democratic state Congressman Chris Bell's unsuccessful race against Perry for governor in 2006. "But when we see him campaign, he is a genius."
You've seen it by now, on the campaign trail or at the debate podium: Perry cocking that cowboy smile and vowing to "get America back workin' again." He will do it by making Americans more like Texans, who are not, he says, "over-taxed, over-regulated and over-litigated." In Washington he will force government to do what he claims he made it do in Austin: "get out of the way and let the private sector do what the private sector does."
It's a powerful 10-second pitch. Of course, smart, well-paid wonks employed by his opponents are working hard to create a good 10-second anti-Perry pitch. But the truth about Perry's "Texas miracle" can't easily be packaged in a sound bite.
At the heart of Perry's so-called miracle is his state's edge in job creation. He cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers to show that Texas added a million jobs during his 11-year tenure as governor of Texas, while the national economy shed 2.45 million jobs. On the surface it seems like a slam dunk.
But those numbers, heavily cherry-picked for effect, are where the wonks will go when the wonks get going. Perry's cheery picture ignores a darker storyline in which unemployment under his regime has increased much faster than the national rate. It's now at a 24-year high, putting Texas at mid-pack among the states.
Perry's favorite window in time is from June 2009 until now — "since the recession ended," if you believe it ever did. He keeps saying Texas produced 40 percent of all the new jobs in America during that period, and the BLS numbers back that up. What Perry doesn't say is that in that same time frame Texas unemployment ran up from 7.7 to 8.5 percent — the highest since the devastating 1987 Texas oil and gas bust — while the national unemployment rate dipped from 9.5 to 9.1.
How did Texas add jobs and suffer greater unemployment at the same time? By growing its population. During Perry's tenure, the state's population has grown at more than twice the national rate, the larger share of that growth coming from the birthrate — in other words, not only from folks flocking down to Texas for all those jobs Perry's allegedly making. New jobs in Texas have not kept up with new Texans.
Bernard Weinstein, an energy economist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a consultant to national corporations and associations, says the Texas climate is more business-friendly than the national one, and he gives Perry credit for being "a good steward of Texas values." But even Weinstein balks at giving Perry credit for the state's economy. Much of Texas' good fortune, he says, derives from what the rest of the country has been doing for the last 50 years.
"Texas is in the middle of the country," Weinstein says. "That used to be a liability. Now it's an asset. As the population has moved west, as we have developed highways and air corridors and air conditioning, all of a sudden instead of being in the middle of nowhere we're in the center of everything."
These major demographic shifts, continental in dimension, have provided Texas with significant windfalls, Weinstein says. Perry claiming credit for these is like the baton major strutting in front of the parade and pretending he's the one deciding where to turn.
"At least for the last 40 years Texas has led the nation in population growth and job creation," Weinstein says. "So if there is a Texas economic miracle, it started long before Rick Perry."
Does saying that Texas is "business friendly" mean the state is unlike the rest of the country in some significant way, something important enough to make Texas more prosperous than America? Academic studies and the testimony of people involved in shaping the state's economy say no. Instead, Texas is much more like the rest of the country than it used to be, but maybe a little worse at being that way than others.