Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Houston vs. Detroit government philosophies

The National Review recently published a great essay on the Detroit vs. Houston development models since WW2 titled "Houston, We Have a Solution" (big hat tip to Brian).  Detroit was so far ahead of us - how did things switch so powerfully over the last few decades?  The whole article is definitely worth reading, but let's dive into the key excerpts: (highlights mine)

Houston had suffered race riots, too, during World War I, but fortune would smile on it for most of the 20th century. And when oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, sending the city into a depression, it bounced back as if suspended from a bungee cord — even though the oil bust lasted nearly two decades. What Houston did for itself is not merely a model for any city facing the danger of sudden economic decline: The policies that Houston and Texas have followed are proof of concept for the conservative vision of government, which is, essentially, to keep the government off the people’s backs and let a free society find its own way to prosperity.

Detroit, conversely, is proof of concept for the liberal vision of government, which seeks to solve every problem through government, to shape economic development through government, to redress grievances through government, to attain social justice through government, and, finally, to insinuate government into every aspect of our lives. The problems Detroit faced in the latter half of the 20th century would have been enormously challenging no matter what policies it embraced. But it embraced the worst ones and so plunged recklessly down the slope of decline.

Each city has offered a nearly pure exposition of a particular philosophy of government and a vivid demonstration of the results. In the degree of collusion between business and government, in the power of labor unions, in the method of economic development, in the burden of taxation and regulation, in the tolerance for diversity — in all these ways and more, the two cities stand as diametric opposites in the choices a society can make.
Between 1900 and 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world.
Texas likes to brag that it is “business friendly,” but it would be more accurate to say that it is, by both philosophy and force of circumstances, “competition friendly.”
Texas has prospered from the fact that it is a right-to-work state.
The Texas Medical Center in Houston is the world’s largest, employing nearly 100,000 people and receiving nearly 6 million patients per year.
Tolerance of cultural diversity has become a hallmark of Houston’s ascent, despite the state’s checkered history of race relations. Texans take individual freedom and individual responsibility very seriously, so meritocracy comes naturally to them. In the words of George Strake, one of Houston’s most venerated oilmen, “Everyone’s welcome here, so long as you’re willing to pull the wagon and not just sit in it.” That is perhaps why anti-immigrant feeling is not nearly as pronounced in Texas as it is in other parts of the Southwest. Like Detroit, Houston is minority white, but more diverse: Blacks make up 25 percent of the population, Hispanics 37 percent, and Asians (chiefly Vietnamese and Chinese) more than 5 percent.

Texas has managed to preserve something very essential about America, namely the frontier mentality, what the great Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach described as the “cult of courage.” Or, in the words of Mr. Strake, “Give me wide open spaces. Let me enjoy the good times, and don’t feel sorry for me in bad times.” Naturally, this leads to a certain vision of government: Defend our shores, deliver the mail, and get the hell out of the way.
...keeping government off people’s backs and letting the free market innovate its way out of recession. The Lone Star State is now the industrial engine of the American economy, singlehandedly responsible for half of the country’s job growth in recent years.

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At 1:08 AM, October 26, 2011, Blogger Anphang said...

I had a much longer response which basically went and brought up each point that had me asking questions, or raising counter-points. But this is a comment thread, so I will merely "summarize":

I would call it a fallacy of composition to conflate villainous societal behaviors (Devil's Night), inept politicians (Detroit's Young), and interest group capture (unions, automakers) with the failures of anything but bad choices, ineptitude, and interest group capture. The alternative is to believe that domestic protectionism, corruption, government funds to subsidize job creation, and the longstanding social travesty that is inner-city crime are somehow uniquely liberal ideas, or that liberalism is uniquely susceptible to these problems.

I also highly doubt that Loyola would allow me to discredit conservatism by bringing up the Texas Enterprise and Emerging Technology Funds, federal subsidies for and consolidation in the energy industry, the Houston Mass Murders, NASA, Governor Perry’s long history of appointing donors and political allies to state government positions, the massive number of uninsured Texans, or the mixed success Houston has had keeping out the drug and human trafficking that comes with being a world port.

Finally, with all due respect, the idea that conservatives want to get government off the people's backs but that liberals want people to rely completely on government is crock. If either of those statements was ever true, the entire Johnson-Nixon realignment was a battle in both parties to fight top-down business-government collusion and a command/control economy and instead advocate policies of bottom-up individual economic empowerment. With the H.W.-Clinton-Dubya realignment, that battle was won pretty conclusively.

Urban planning, use-based zoning, parking minimums, economic stratification, and race-based interest groups are not avoided with Houston's solutions, and they do not somehow fore-ordain Detroit's problems. Therefore, we are talking about good and bad policies being viewed with 20/20 hindsight, and two parties that seek to control government to further their own policies, rather than contract or expand government itself.

At 7:18 AM, October 26, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think you raise some fair points, Anphang. But I do disagree with this one: "Urban planning, use-based zoning, parking minimums, economic stratification, and race-based interest groups are not avoided with Houston's solutions"

Houston has managed to minimize most of those issues (including racial polarization and segregation), at least compared to peer cities of similar size. Not eliminated, but relatively less.

At 4:02 PM, October 26, 2011, Blogger Anphang said...

Fair enough, and as a mostly I-35 Texan I'll willingly concede both your point on comparing peer cities and your better knowledge of Houston. What's the most aggravating about Loyola's article is that I'd strongly defend Houston's record versus Detroit's, especially to out-of-state detractors who know little about Houston except which President it went for in 2000.

Although I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised to find inaccuracies in a blog post, or, if I continue to be a liberal who prefers to read moderate and conservative blogs, characterizations/connections I disagree with, lol.

If I may, actually, I'd be intrigued to hear more about the role unions play in Houston. All I ever seem to hear is vague characterizations about them being relatively more pragmatic and business-friendly that unions elsewhere in the nation, or less prone to policy over-reach. Any thoughts, or links?

At 4:50 PM, October 26, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, we are a right-to-work state, so right there unions are not as strong. Other than that, it does seem to be a vague cultural thing, as you describe. Just anecdotes. Sorry, can't point to any solid links.

At 9:55 PM, October 28, 2011, Blogger Anphang said...

No problem, and thanks anyway for the response!

My mildly blistering reaction to this article aside, I love reading your blog - keep up the good work!

At 10:50 PM, October 28, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks. Much appreciated.

At 3:13 PM, October 30, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Randy Locke for District C Houston City Council;

I propose that the 2.5 Million in 10 year tax abatements, being offered to the proposed Kroger expansion near the Heights in District C instead be offered to the Ashby high rise dilemma.

By adding the 2.15 million the city offered in 10 year tax abatements and the 500K in cash incentives from 2008, to the 2.5 Million we can offer a total compensation package of 5.15 Million.

The city paid 8 Million last year in the Inwood area of the new District C, to buy property because the residents did not want additional developments of low rent housing in their neighborhood.

In my opinion we should not be giving incentives to anyone, without strings attached ever. I believe there are kickbacks and bribes somewhere along the chain, in the proposed new Kroger project and the Wal-Mart Heights 6 Million project from last year.

Kroger already owns the land in the new proposed project and they should spend their own resources on drainage and all other infrastructure. We already supply them with ample lighting, streets, police, and fire protection.

Smarter uses for incentives would be to create smaller packages that will create JOBS and NEW BUSINESS. The small and medium size business sector fuel 90% of the job growth.


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