Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's mighty reckless....

"Many of us saw that video where he said it was the first step. If you're a member of the UAW, you know what that means," Barrett declaimed. "If you're a carpenter, or a painter, even if you're not part of a union, you know what that means. It means they're going after the middle class, and the people who want to be middle class. Scott Walker has said he was going to divide and conquer. He has succeeded in dividing. We will show this nation that Scott Walker will never conquer the middle class of America.... It's just cynical. You know that there's something wrong when your governor is raising 70 percent of his money in $250,000 and $500,000 checks.... He says he doesn't want Wisconsin to look like Milwaukee, and he insults the city he led for nine years. I'll tell you this — I don't want Wisconsin to look like Texas."

Well, there it is.   And I swear, until recently, I had no idea Gail Collins had written a book about politics in Texas.  But, of course, this is why we need one:

Eventually, I asked him why he was here, at the Serb Hall, supporting Scott Walker, whose politics were far more in tune with the people who are trying to strangle the postal service than they are with the people who still work there. Phil told me that it was about his sister-in-law. "The problem is that, when you start handing out free health care out to teachers, that annoys me to no end," he said. "I never got free health care. My brother's wife is a teacher and I once asked her, when I was getting my teeth worked on, what it cost her and she said, 'Nothing.' It should never get to that point where somebody's getting free health care. Something's way out of whack there."
That's why everything in the country is starting to look like Texas.  Because it should never get to the point that somebody's getting something for free.

In Texas, we pretty much resent the fact that anybody else has a functional government, at all.  I thought about that again the other night, because I'd said Texas has gotten used to a non-functioning (it would have to improve to be dysfunctional) government in my lifetime.  The fact is, Texas has always had what it wanted:  a government that does next to nothing at all.

Texas has been, since the Civil War, a one-party state.  It was pretty much a one-party state when it was a Republic, so it's in the bones of the place; we drink it in the water.  And I can vaguely recall a parade of lackluster men, all Democrats, who sat in the Governor's office and did....well, pretty much nothing.  It was all they were expected to do.  We may recall "Pappy" O'Daniel, but only because of his connection to the Light Crust Doughboys (yes, the inspiration for the "Soggy Bottom Boys").  We may recall "Ma" Ferguson, but only because she was the first female governor of Texas (no, it wasn't Ann Richards).  In my lifetime it's been John Connally, a man best remembered for being in the car with JFK in Dallas (and later for spending more money than any hopeful in the GOP primaries to get only one delegate to the convention); Preston Smith; Dolph Briscoe, and then some governors who actually tried to do things, such as William Clements (R) and Ann Richards.  But Texas learned its lesson, and made sure after Gov. Miz Ann that the Governor would be a useless and non-embarassing figure head.  So we got Bush, and then Rick Perry (who is in political trouble now because he did embarrass Texas.  That is the one political sin we cannot forgive.).

Don't ask me what Dolph Briscoe and Preston Smith did; nobody cared.  But what I'm saying is, this ain't quite right:

Not until she visited Texas, that proud state of big oil and bigger ambitions, did Gail Collins, the best-selling author and columnist for the New York Times, realize that she had missed the one place that mattered most in America’s political landscape. Raised in Ohio, Collins had previously seen the American fundamental divide as a war between the Republican heartland and its two liberal coasts. But the real story, she came to see, was in Texas, where Bush, Cheney, Rove, & Perry had created a conservative political agenda that is now sweeping the country and defining our national identity. Through its vigorous support of banking deregulation, lax environmental standards, and draconian tax cuts, through its fierce championing of states rights, gun ownership, and, of course, sexual abstinence, Texas, with Governor Rick Perry’s presidential ambitions, has become the bellwether of a far-reaching national movement that continues to have profound social and economic consequences for us all. Like it or not, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.

Which isn't to say it's wrong; just that Texas hasn't really changed, and the political agenda created here existed long before Bush and Cheney got hold of it.  After all, OPEC was modeled on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that over saw the oil bidness in Texas for decades.  Long before Texas had any political influence, it had plenty of economic influence, and the TRRC was part of that.  What has changed is the desire of the GOP to run things as they are done (now) in Texas; and what's really changed, is that this isn't about the Tea Party anymore.  In fact, it probably never was.

Let me try to explain.  Texas began its political life as a debtor's haven.  The Texas Constitution includes a homestead exemption which means no homeowner can lose their house for debts which are not:  a) taxes; b) the mortgage; or c) a lien for work done to improve the homestead.  A widow (or widower) has a survivor's interest in the homestead which lasts as long as the survivor is alive, and there's nothing the heirs can do about it.  It used to be a requirement of Texas law that, when it came time to sell the homestead, the wife had to be questioned separately, apart from her husband, to ascertain that she was freely and of her own accord agreeing to the sale (she still has to agree, but the rather paternalistic separate meeting with the lawyer is no longer necessary).

This meant, of course, there were no second or third mortgages in Texas.  But Texas also has broad protections over what can be seized to pay debts.  Personal property to a certain value is exempt, but so are specific items of personal property (the list runs rather long in the statutes).  Wages cannot be garnished, except for child support payments.  It is, frankly, hard to collect on a civil judgment against an individual in Texas.  The homestead exemption runs to 10 acres inside the city limits, and 100 acres outside of it.  There is no limit on the value of the house.  George Bush managed to change some of that, and I'm still not sure it was a good thing.

It is now possible, thanks to W., to take out a second mortgage on a homestead in Texas.  One might say, in good times, that accessing one's equity in a home is a good thing.  But considering how many people lost their homes in the S&L collapse in the '80's, and that without second mortgages, it's never seemed like a good thing to me.  Who it benefits, of course, is the lenders.  In fact, there's an obvious linkage between that piercing of the homestead exemption and mortgage backed securities:  they are both ways to play with property as if it were stocks on the market, rather than shelter and, well, a home.

Remember Enron, and what it did to the electricity market in California?  Bush liked that, too.  But then, as I say, the TRRC was controlling the oil market when that market was primarily Texas, for a long time.  We have a history, in other words, of using government to prop up business, and business likes it.  The Texas Constitution was born in an anti-railroad./anti-banker fever, but that quickly cooled.  A few decades back, when there was a renewed effort to fix the clanking 19th century constitution (which really is a mess; every two years voters have to amend it after the Lege meets (for only six months every two years) to get almost any laws enacted.  Nobody ever knows what they are voting for, and most people don't bother to vote, but the amendments pass anyway.), a businessman led the effort to oppose reform.  His reasoning:  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  And from a businessman's point of view, there's very little that's broke about Texas government.

And that last stab at Constitutional reform was when George W. was still mostly known as the drunken scion of Poppy, who was still an Ambassador or running the CIA or something.

So this didn't start with Rove and Cheney and Shrub.  It's just gotten worse since then.

On the other hand, Texas is now the second most populous state in the nation, behind only California; and it's getting bigger all the time.  A state with that many people in it is bound to finally start throwing some weight on the national stage, no matter what its ambitions are.  The upside is, naked ambition doesn't work:  Rick Perry sank faster than a stone on the water on the national stage.  He gets elected in Texas because he's a Republican, not because he's a good politician (a Democrat getting elected since William Clements was governor would be the mark of a great politician; just ask Ann Richards).  Perry is the distraction; Perry is the freak show.  Forget Perry.  The real power here is Grover Norquist.  Just ask Molly Ivins:

Norquist is just the sailor you want in the crew when contemplating the disaster about to engulf the public schools [in Texas]. He is behind the national anti-tax movement, and 38 Texas Republican legislators have now signed his pledge to never, ever raise taxes, without exceptions, including for catastrophic emergencies. Norquist himself is a noted contributor to the sweet science of state governance, saying last year: "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitols and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship. ... Bipartisanship is just another name for date rape." 
 I pause only to note this was written 8 years ago, long before the current dyspepsia about the "Tea Party" and the "divided" Congress.  Ms. Ivins went on to connect this directly to Texas:

Texas is the National Laboratory for Bad Government, and think what a splendid opportunity we now have to completely ruin our public schools by doing absolutely nothing. Our schools are funded by the Robin Hood plan adopted in 1993, which arrives at an approximate level of fairness between rich and poor districts by taking money from rich districts and giving them to poor ones.

            Local property taxes have skyrocketed, while state lawmakers complacently brag they haven't raised taxes. The state's share of the cost of public education has dropped from 52 percent in 1980 to 38 percent today. The state, which has an infinitely larger lax base than local districts, may not have raised state taxes, but they have sure as a by-God raised your local taxes.

            This cannot continue. Over half of the school districts are already within 1 percent of the top tax rate allowed by state law. They can raise local taxes no further. They are cutting programs, and firing teachers and administrators. More and more are applying for waivers to get their districts exempted from the state requirements that there be no more than 22 pupils per teacher in the first elementary grades, and that was the great triumph of years of school reform efforts. As we have all learned over the long struggle to improve the schools, smaller class size is the one improvement we know works no mater what the other variables are.

            We need at least $10 billion in new taxes to fix this without harming the schools. The alternative is a $2 billion fix patch on the old system that will further decay the schools. So, attention all Americans, the case study beings, right here in Texas, home of so much bad public policy: how to destroy the public schools.
Suffice to say, it did get worse.  Here's how that worked out in the intervening 8 years:

Under pressure from federal courts demanding more equitable school funding, Texas revised how it pays for education through high school in 2006. The state enacted laws to cut local property taxes and expand a levy on business income. While the recession crimped state revenue in 2008 and 2009, companies using loopholes avoided paying as much as forecast.  

In 2011, Perry was proud of a budget that was described as doing this:

 Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee: “This budget will dismantle the educational infrastructure in the State of Texas.

And it has; the layoffs of teachers and staff in Texas last year was massive.  The budget cut $4 billion from education funding for two years.  And there's no sign any of that money is coming back in the next session.  And Gail Collins' book and interview with Rachel provides ample evidence of how poor the Texas education system is now.  The result is fairly clear, but no one wants to admit it:

Lawmakers on the Public Education Committee were alarmed that so many of the first ninth-graders to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test this year performed poorly. They branded many aspects of the implementation of the new test sloppy.
Yes, STAAR is a joke of a test, as is any "standardized test."  But who is surprised when an underfunded school system produces students incapable of passing a test, any test?  The test is only part of the problem, but it will get all the blame.  I can't go on.  I'll go on.

Texas is now a nightmare dreamed by Samuel Beckett.

I mentioned, at the beginning, that resentment is a driving force in American politics; but it always has been.  Texas started out as a debtor's paradise; what better origin to breed resentment of what others have that you don't?  Of course, not all Texans are like that, or Planned Parenthood wouldn't be run by Ann Richards daughter, and LBJ would never have waged a War on Poverty.  And resentment is not peculiar to Texas by any means.  But resentment has always taken a curious form here.  There's a reason we don't like being embarrassed by our politicians, why that is the unforgivable political sin.  It's because we don't like being mocked.  And being a debtor's haven, we resent anyone who has more than we do, unless of course they are business owners who have "earned" it.  That's pretty universal; if I can't earn it, why should you have it?  The special form of resentment in Texas comes from this sense of inferiority, of being a debtor's haven, a last redoubt, the final refuge of those who couldn't make it anywhere else, and don't come here to reverse their fortunes, so much as to escape the consequences of seeking fortunes.

Texas, in other words, is full of people who feel like they got the raw end of the deal, and now they only want to be left alone.  A debtor's haven pretty much guarantees that.  The government won't help you, but it will see to it that you are left alone.  Texas has always been a draw for people with nowhere else to go; it makes for a mighty peculiar culture, though.  It makes us mighty touchy about how we are perceived.  We really don't like public figures who make us look foolish.  That's the kind of attention we came here to get away from; even those of us who were born here.

Divide and conquer, of course, has worked spectacularly well in Texas.  Rick Perry knows that:

As Texans, we always take care of the least among us.

The frail, the young, the elderly on fixed incomes, those in situations of abuse and neglect, people whose needs are greater than the resources at their disposal – they can count on the people of Texas to be there for them.

We will protect them, support them and empower them, but cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process. We must cut spending to keep our economic engine on track.
He never precisely identifies who that abstract group of faceless frail, young, and elderly are, nor what protection they will be offered (or how adequate it will be).  And then he weighs them against the taxpayers, and he finally decided Texas schoolchildren and Planned Parenthood should take it in the neck.  But then, those people:  poor women who need healthcare; teachers; students; don't deserve any help from Texas.  Or at least, not enough to do them any good.  And if Texas' "economic engine" is measured by unemployment, it's still pretty much tracking with the national average.   Any real difference can best be attributed to the energy sector of the economy, especially oil and gas.  It certainly is a stretch to say that Texas government policy has anything to do with it, since the only government policy in Texas is:  do as little as humanly possible.

Some of this, of course, is funny, because now the "liberal media" is discovering it again.  Gail Collins has an article in the current New York Review of Books which contains absolutely no new information at all, and certainly nothing I didn't already know from reading Molly Ivins (who is much funnier, and a better writer, too.)  Yes, Texas still dominates the public school textbook industry, and yes the textbooks they choose are disastrous.  The only response I can make is that my daughter is a product of Texas public schools, and she is not ignorant about evolution or economics, for that matter.  I've found I'm far more an influence on her than the school textbooks she never read were.  Did anybody read the textbooks in school?  I have a vague memory of reading some, and I never got a decent education in Marxism or economic theory, for that matter; not in public schools.  But there were libraries and bookstores and now, the internet; not to mention intelligent teachers (and some not so intelligent, to be honest).  My daughter was lucky enough to be in a school district where they were less concerned with ideology than with instruction.  I attended Texas schools when the Gablers were in full flower, and I still managed to learn what they would have had me never know.  It's bad, but it's not the end of civilization as we know it.

Gary Wills is closer to the mark:

Those who think there is no difference between the parties should look at the state that no longer elects any Democrats, the Texas described so well by Gail Collins, with its schools attacking evolution, its religious leaders denying there was ever any separation of church and state, and its cowboy code of justice. If people like Professor Unger, people too highly principled for us folks who muck around in the real world, get their way, they will not give us a prince turned into a frog, but America turned into Texas.
 As the late Ms. Ivins said, "I love the state of Texas, but I regard that as a harmless perversion on my part and would not, in the name of common humanity, try to foist my pathology off on anyone else."  The Tex-Mex is good, the people are friendly, the beer is cold, the music foot-stompin', but the politics?  Heaven forbid.  What I take from Mr. Wills' critique, which is about politics and not just about Texas, is that you have to be willing to get your hands dirty in the world, if you are going to complain about the world.  Pardon the seeming hard turn, but this is a lesson that goes back to the Desert Fathers.  As Thomas Merton pointed out, they went to the desert because society (Rome was collapsing) was falling all around them, and in the shipwreck they could only grab a piece of floating debris and hang on.  Thomas Cahill's argument about how the Irish saved civilization is similar, as the Irish missionaries came in from the fringe of the collapsing empire toward its center, bringing literacy, compassion, and spiritual discipline with them (interesting how many "Catholic" practices common today came from Irish Christian spirituality). And no, I don't mean now to be comparing the problems of the country as seen through the lens of Texas with the collapse of civil order.  That expectation is sheer nonsense.  But if you can't delve into the world and reshape it at the foundations, you have to stay out of the world altogether.  Mr. Wills' article is about Professor Robert Unger's inability to be either hot or cold, and his attempts to remain heilege; pure; unscathed.  Nice work if you can get it.

But you can't, in this world.  The Desert Fathers struggled with their own human nature.  It was enough struggle, just tending their own gardens (read the number of  stories where they have to remind the other monastics to stay out of each others business, if you doubt me).  And if you want to engage the world, you have to do it on the world's terms.  You have to get messy with politics, and make compromises, and try to accomplish something rather than nothing at all.  But I think in that course you have to prize humility above hubris, effort above accomplishment, and purity of heart above purity of will.  The problem with the purists on either side is, as Reinhold Niebuhr said of revivalist preachers:

They never seem to realize how many of the miseries of mankind are due not to malice but to misdirected zeal and unbalanced virtue.  They never help the people who corrupt family love by making the family a selfish unit in society or those who brutalize industry by excessive devotion to the prudential virtues. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1980, p. 45.)
 Niebuhr links this to power, wondering if power is possible without sacrificing some measure of truth.  He would probably stumble over my insistence on the power of powerlessness.  Still, it is a question of power, and the power here resides in the abstraction:  the "family as a....unit in society," or "excessive devotion to the prudential values."  As ever, looking for something outside of us to provide salvation for us, to save us from ourselves so we are relieved of responsibility for our actions, miserable creatures that we think we are.

The problems of Texas, or of politics in America, are of the same ilk:  an insistence that the right ideology will usher in the millenium, or at least save us from our humanity.  Rick Perry speaks in comfortingly abstract bromides about compassion for the poor, with no more regard for poor people than he has for rattlesnakes.  I am wary of people who come promising salvation, through governmental mechanisms or religious promises; just as I am wary of the claim that someone somewhere is getting something for free, and I'm gettin' nothin'.  Two sides of the same coin, and I'm tired of trading in that currency.  Give Caesar what has Caesar's image, and God what has God's image, and the rest will take care of itself.

And the sign?  Seriously, it's an anti-litter campaign.  Get over it.


  1. Give [...] God what has God's image, and the rest will take care of itself.

    But what has God's image? If God is imageless, then nothing has God's image, so what do we really owe God. But if we are made in God's image, then everyone has God's image, so all owe our very selves and everyone else to God.

    Perhaps this is your point here?


    BTW -- I'm sure I've asked you this or you've otherwise indicated your opinions on the matter but what do you think of Michael Lind's book Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics?

  2. Perhaps this is your point here?

    A backhanded reference to a story from the Gospels: Jesus is given a coin with a graven image on it, one unsuitable for use by observant Jews (hence moneychangers at the Temple, and all). He's asked if Jews can use it to pay the tax to Rome (it's the only currency allowed).

    If he says yes, he's not a prophet (impiety). If he says no, he's a traitor to Rome, and subject to arrest.

    So he says "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's."

    So I was playing on the "image" and the usual translation of Genesis 1, where humanity is made in the "image" of God.

    Haven't seen Lind's book, but yes, I think in general the South is winning the war this time, and Texas is the blueprint (well, second most populous state in the country; no surprise, huh?)

  3. RMJ,

    I actually caught the references (there is a story on a somewhat similar note in the Talmud where Hillel suggests that the second year tithe -- in which people brought money to the Temple to exchange for sacrificial offerings to be shared with the poor -- could be used as a sort of tax dodge but Shammai declares this to be unseemly* in one of the few cases where Halacha goes with Shammai rather than Hillel ... I wonder what this, as well as "render unto Caesar", says about the morality of taking tax deductions for donations to religious and religiously based institutions) but wasn't quite sure where you were going with them.

    * interestingly, in this part of the Talmud, there is also a whole discussion about what happens to the value of money with a ruler's image on it when, following the passing of said ruler, esteem for the ruler goes up or down -- and how this and related factors of inflation or deflation relate to the Biblical injunction against charging interest. Of course, in the same tractate there is also a discussion about the attractiveness of Rabbi Jochanan (given that Jochanan means "God's grace", I wonder if that whole discussion is metaphorical) and a digression into how morbidly obese the various sages of the Talmud were as well as how big their penises were ... such is the Talmud.

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  5. alberich, I'm going to have to study the Talmud. What gloriously interesting points.

    'tax deductions for donations to religious and religiously based institutions'

    I did a little post last weekend in response to the 10^824th blog whine about tax deductions for donations to religious institutions with one about the number of anti-religious institutions that enjoy that tax status. One, The Ayn Rand Institute assures the faithless that they aren't going against their principle against tax deductions for, uh, charitable groups because they resolutely intend to use their donations to do away with the laws that allow such things.

    Others just did what they complain about without explanation.

  6. Windhorse1:16 PM

    More proof for the Lone Star pudding from the Texas GOP:

    Access to health care can't be universal because health is about "lifestyle choices." [Really? And genetics and environment dont play key roles? That must mean infants are always perfectly healthy]

    Texas GOP Platform: the teaching of critical thinking skills should be outlawed (!) as it undermines the family [among every other monstrous and self-destructive position one could conjure up, amounting to a complete rethinking of the American experience and government.] [the actual text of the platform]