Saturday, February 19, 2005

Red State Blues: How Red America Became an Economic Backwater

After the presidential election last year I began thinking about how far the newly empowered right-wing evangelical politicians and their supporters might go and how that might affect the economic life of the so-called "Red States." I put down my imaginings in the form of a letter from the future. As I view what has happened already, I think I may actually have been too restrained in my thinking. With this post I depart from the main focus of this blog, but I will note that the anti-science trajectory of the Red States will have profound implications for all of us when it comes to discussing and proposing solutions for energy issues, global warming, industrial agriculture and water pollution, just to name a few key environmental topics. Here is the essay:

December 3, 2018

Dear Robert,

As I write to you, Governor Tom Delay is about to start his fourth term, and he's pretty much turned Texas into the biblically-inspired "paradise" that he always wanted the whole country to be.

I think his administration is part of the reason my company is moving to Chicago. Top management says we need to have our key people in a place where we can continue to attract first-rate talent. Houston, it seems, has dropped off the map as a place where the very best recruits want to live.

As I look back over my time here, I should have seen this coming sooner. In fact, now that I've had time to reflect on it, I can't figure out why the company waited so long.

What's happened, of course, is that Delay and his overwhelming Republican majority in the legislature have put through law after law that create a climate that is very unattractive to today's savvy scientists, engineers, artists, business-school graduates and the like. Houston has always competed with places such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Boston for talent. Now, of course, we compete with Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, too.

Our troubles really all started after the U. S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It didn't take Tom Delay and the legislature five minutes to pass a bill banning most abortions. That was back in 2009, shortly after Jeb Bush followed his brother into the presidency. But, of course, all the court did was kick the issue back to the states. The third President Bush swore he'd pass a nationwide ban. But, the Democrats swore they'd read from the New York City telephone directory for as long as necessary to filibuster such a bill. It's all moot anyway since the Democrats have maintained effective control of the Senate for the last 10 years with the help of several former Republican senators who are now, as you know, independents.

Of course, there was nothing to stop the other states in the old Confederacy plus Kentucky from quickly following Texas' example. Only Virginia hesitated and then passed a very mild bill banning abortion with an exception for the health of the mother, a loophole that everyone knew would make the law toothless.

Soon afterwards Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana all passed bans. Indiana toyed with a ban, but the politicians decided it would be bad for business, a prescient call as it turns out.

It all seems darkly comical now as I think back on that time. In the very next election in Texas a whole new crew of Republicans ran for state legislature in the Republican primaries, ousting nearly every incumbent. Only the candidates who pledged to remove all exceptions to abortion--for rape and incest and yes, the life of the mother--won their primaries. Of course, once these people got into the legislature, they put up a bill that did just what they promised.

Well, an older and wiser Tom Delay tried to tie the bill up in committee so he'd never have to sign it. The business lobby had begun to tire of Delay's biblical vision and told him so. But, the legislature ended up passing the bill by veto-proof majorities, and Delay went ahead and signed it since a veto would have been pointless.

Of course, it wasn't too long afterwards--sometime in 2010, I think--that the U. S. Supreme Court decided to uphold state constitutional amendments and laws banning gay marriage and civil unions. But, to add insult to injury, the court went out of its way to say that the states had the right to regulate the sexual behavior of consenting adults.

It was like throwing fresh meat into a tank of piranhas. The Texas legislature immediately proposed a bill to make sodomy illegal with jail terms of up to 10 years for violations. Few of us in Houston gave it much thought. We imagined that such a ban would be unenforceable, even if the crazies in Austin passed it. Well, they did pass it, again by veto-proof majorities.

Then, only a few days after the law went into effect, some small-town police department arrested a gay couple at their home where they had lived peacefully for 25 years. The judge later dismissed the charges due to lack of evidence. But, the point got made. If you were gay, you could be dragged out of your house at two in the morning and locked up.

The Houston police chief announced publicly that he would not enforce the ban. But, the gay community felt it would only be safe so long as that particular chief stayed on the job. And, traveling outside of Houston now posed special dangers. Thus began the great gay exodus from Texas. I am certain that at least four of the people the company lost shortly afterwards were part of that exodus, and there must have been many more that I didn't know personally.

Of course, most of the other southern states followed suit with their own sodomy laws. Mississippi's law included life imprisonment for a third violation. By this time, however, it didn't seem like any gay man was going to stay around long enough to violate Mississippi's sodomy laws three times.

But, many other states that had passed abortion bans hesitated. Only Wyoming and Idaho passed sodomy bans. Governors in the rest of the states found ways to kill such bills. The governor of North Dakota got the sodomy ban amended to include a mandatory death penalty for a third offense and then vetoed it, calling it too harsh.

Just having those bills come up in the legislature, however, put a chill in the gay community. So, the trickle of gay men who had been leaving the Great Plains and the Mountain West for some time now turned into a torrent.

Oddly, lesbians were rarely mentioned in the debate. For some reason they don't seem to inspire the kind of fear and loathing that gay men do.

As I remember, that was the year several big companies moved their headquarters out of Houston. They always said they were doing it for strategic business reasons. And, I see now that they were doing what my company has only just decided to do. Who wants to live in a place that is so backward looking? Certainly, neither America's nor the world's best and brightest.

The following year Alabama led the way with a measure outlawing the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The teachers there were very upset, and some of them vowed to disregard the law. Once again, I underestimated the will of the politicians. A few of the teachers were arrested. The whole country came down on Alabama. For a week television, radio and newspapers were filled with nothing but stories on the fate of 18 teachers who had decided to defy the ban and were now sitting in jail. You probably remember this because it was as if we were getting hourly reports about a mine rescue.

Several cable networks changed their schedules to run all three film versions of "Inherit the Wind," the ones with Spencer Tracy and Jack Lemmon, and the more recent one with Tom Cruise. Even President Jeb Bush asked the governor to release the teachers and called for repeal of the law.

Well, Alabama did let the teachers go and repeal the law. But, the Alabama legislature replaced the offending statute with another one that mandated the teaching of so-called "intelligent design" alongside the theory of evolution. That compromise seemed to satisfy the nation, I think, only because the first law had been so extreme. As expected, all the other states of the old Confederacy plus Kentucky adopted similar laws. But, that's where it stopped.

As I've talked to teachers here in Texas, they've told me that support for science education had already been in decline for years before the Alabama "Scopes 2" incident, as it's come to be known. They said that the entire South had become anti-science in a way, and that that attitude was now starting to trickle up into the university system. Southern legislatures were much more inclined to put money into religious study programs than they were into new science and engineering labs. So now, increasingly, the most talented engineering and science students are leaving the South and going elsewhere. In fact, I believe it was around the time of "Scopes 2" that the long entrenched migration from north to south began to reverse itself.

Speaking of religion, it was only last week that the Supreme Court handed Alabama a victory for its school prayer law. In 2014 the state passed a bill mandating the daily recitation of a non-denominational prayer in the public schools. The bill even included a sample prayer which, when you read it, seemed pretty innocuous. But, everyone knew the ACLU would challenge the law the minute it went into effect. Not surprisingly, this Supreme Court said that such matters were for the states to decide. So, as you might expect, several state legislatures including Texas now have school prayer bills before them.

Until now, I hadn't really reflected much on how all of this was affecting people. I knew it was a negative for us at the company. Last year we tried to hire three top engineering graduates from Stanford, but all of them slipped away. Two of them ended up in Boston and the other, I think, stayed in California.

Yesterday, our local newspaper announced that Exxon International (the old ExxonMobil) is moving its headquarters to London to take better advantage of international markets. Well, that's got to be code for not being able to get anybody who's worth a damn to come to Houston anymore.

I have to say that I'm usually the last one to get in on any trend, but I have the feeling that the exodus is only beginning. Many of the young women employees who moved here from out of state have found Houston less appealing than they'd hoped. Some confided to me that they were already looking to transfer to another location within the company. And, I'm forced to agree that Houston isn't nearly as much fun as it used to be.

But, getting back to the move. You know, when a company announces that its headquarters is moving, that usually spells a bunch of somber faces on those who don't want to go. I've seen it many times in this town before. So, when I arrived at the office last week and found out about the move, I decided to take an informal mental poll. I was surprised to find that 70 percent of the people I had contact with in the office that day had smiles on their faces. And, as for the young women employees I told you about--well, they invited a number of us from the office to join them for a getting-the-hell-out-of-Houston party that night at a nearby restaurant. We all had a lot of fun.

Afterwards, I talked with one of the women, and she told me that she and her boyfriend are both thrilled about the move. They are planning to get married soon and want to raise a family. But, they both agree that they don't want their children to grow up in the unhealthy and backward environment that Texas is becoming.

They have a point. In my trips to New York and Chicago and San Francisco, I feel I can breathe more easily and speak more freely than I do at home. Those places always seem like they're moving forward, whereas when I'm in Houston, I feel like I'm running in place.

Robert, I think writing this letter has really helped me solidify my decision to move with the company to Chicago. And, I have you to thank for making me think through my vague discontent. When you're surrounded by something, you often get used to it without knowing that it's bothering you. Unfortunately for Houston and much of the South, I suspect that most people (and companies, for that matter) will now have second thoughts about moving here.

Well, I have to go. I'll contact you when Alice and I arrive in Chicago. (I know you won't be surprised that she's been the biggest cheerleader in our household for this move.) Let's have dinner so you can fill the two of us in on all the great things that are happening in the Windy City.

Best regards,


(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

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