Book Review: Lawrence Wright's 'God Save Texas'
I was first introduced to the work of Lawrence Wright as a student at the University of Texas. It was either my sophomore or junior year, and a professor whose name escapes me assigned us In the New World. Wright didn’t hide his left-of-center view of the world, and this rates mention mainly because I was still a conservative on the way to becoming a small l libertarian.
So while there were differences of opinion with Wright on a few subjects, the book was still excellent. His approach to history was engrossing, plus there was something so reasonable about the author. What stood out most to me was Wright’s self-awareness. The son of a self-made bank-company president who had worked his way through college and law school, Wright seemed to acknowledge that some of what informed his lefty stance was a lifestyle made possible by capitalism.
Figure that Wright attended pricey Tulane as opposed to a state school in Texas (where he grew up), and he wrote about a dinner with his father in New Orleans around the time of graduation. Wright was inward looking enough to realize that his knowledge of the city’s haute cuisine was an effect of his father’s hard work, and he was sheepish in recalling the pretense (along with his father’s irritation) that had him somewhat haughtily explaining the menu of a certain restaurant to the man who would pay the bill, and who had paid his bills. It’s hard to say nearly 30 years later why this particular story stuck with me, but it did. It humanized Wright. It made him trustworthy or something. He wasn’t like the others. Years later I bought In the New World after having sold the one purchased at UT to a campus bookstore. I was a fan of it. Political differences aside, Wright was interesting. I’m going to re-read it so interesting was it.
As many readers know, Wright has since become a writer and screenwriter of global renown. He’s at the New Yorker, and has a Pulitzer Prize. Many of my free-thinking friends on the right loved The Looming Towers. One of these days I intend to love it. But having not yet gotten around to it, I’ve made up for it by reading Wright’s latest: God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State. I opened it as a fan of Wright, and while I still am, God Save Texas (GST from now on) didn’t quite do it for me. A book that could have been great had it been all about endlessly interesting Texas, was less than great for it being so much about the state's political side. And when it wasn’t political, it was often trite. All that, plus the political analysis was weak when it wasn’t overbearing. Though not “yellow dog” in his American-style liberalism, Wright’s less than fair to the other side. To read his analysis of those who lean toward limited government, one developed a sense that he’d never bothered to meet reasonable proponents. Karl Rove (featured in GST, and the “brain” to the worst president in my lifetime) doesn’t count.
Up front, Wright by his own admission has a very love/hate relationship with Texas. Accent should be on hate. Though a long-time resident of Austin, he’s got mixed feelings. Particularly about the Texas beyond Austin. As he writes later in GST, people say “Oh, Austin is cool.” Translated, Austin is the least Texas of them all to the people Wright associates with. This matters because while he grew up in Texas (having been born in Oklahoma), Wright is an Austin Texan. The rest of the state he struggles with. Though he claims to have shaken it, there’s a “self-hating Texan” still within him.
Early on he writes that “Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and the nation.” To Wright, Texas is the problem. When something bad happens politically, including Mitch McConnell’s refusal to stage a vote for President Obama’s nominated Supreme Court nominee (a replacement for Antonin Scalia, who had died in Texas), it’s evidence that the U.S. has “taken another big step in the direction of Texas.” According to Wright, Texas is associated with “boorishness, greed and overall tackiness,” but he defends what he deems the source of “terrible damage” because “there is a lot to love about the traditional elements of our culture.” Wright is torn.
My strong sense is that in his uncertainty about Texas, Wright is revealing yet again that the left can be just as ridiculous as some on the right. Indeed, he writes that “[W]hen I tell people outside the state that I live in Texas, they often look at me uncomprehendingly.” Really? It’s more likely that Wright is hanging with the wrong people when he exits. Figure that Texas has the second largest population of any U.S. state, and it’s growing all the time. What the latter tells us is that most would look at Wright’s choice of locales very comprehendingly. Goodness, Austin itself is now the 11th largest U.S. city. Furthermore, Wright’s mention of how his crowd reacts to his zip code brings to mind the similarly silly line offered up by members of the right after Donald Trump won the White House, that they could “finally say Merry Christmas again.” Oh dear. Both sides need to lighten up.
After that, Wright can't have it both ways. Though he seemingly ties the “cowboy individualism” and “superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority” to the Texas that’s apparently done “terrible damage to the state and the nation,” he acknowledges that “[R]iding on top of the old stereotypes are new ones – hipsters, computer gurus, musicians, video-game tycoons, and a widening artistic class that has reshaped the state’s image and the way we think of ourselves.” In short, what’s allegedly doing damage is increasingly populated by people whom Wright would feel comfortable with. According to the author, Texas’s population is “projected to double by 2050, to 54.4 million”; all of this a certain sign that the booming economy arguably aided by low taxes and smaller government is proving a magnet for the very people who will eventually vote for bigger and bigger government. Figure that California used to be fairly libertarian too until its beauty and economic growth proved a lure for talented people of different views. Wright once again says people outside the state view his choice of residence “uncomprehendingly,” but all the evidence says otherwise. And as opposed to the U.S. moving “in the direction of Texas,” Wright’s description of the Lone Star state’s population evolution arguably signals the opposite.
The problem is that it doesn't stop there. Wright has the habit of writing over-the-top passages without providing supporting evidence. Or better yet, other evidence provided by him disproves the initial claim. Texas is supposedly moving in the wrong direction because of its hyperconservatism, but on p. 202 he writes that eight citizens of lefty California move to Austin per day.
About Dallas, he argues that Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination framed the reputation of the city “for decades,” and it’s a wound that “has never entirely healed.” Really? It strikes this reader that as early as the 1970s, and with the global popularity of the Dallas Cowboys and the television show Dallas very much in mind, that the city moved on in the eyes of outsiders fairly quickly. As for residents today, one wonders how many even think about 1963 anymore as a Dallas thing.
More on Dallas, Wright claims that there’s a “dark side” to its booming economy: inequality. Ok, but why does inequality correlate with a dark side? Austin was made more unequal by billionaire Michael Dell, so can Wright explain how Dell’s wealth injured him or others not as educated and affluent as he is? Normally people get rich by meeting an unmet market need. Was brutally hot Texas harmed by the introduction of air conditioning? The latter surely increased the wealth of its creators, including the intrepid souls who brought it to Texas, but that’s true of anyone who mass produces what people have long wanted, or what they didn’t know they wanted. Wright has a habit of making statements about certain subjects, only to not defend them. What is the “dark side” to wealth creation?
Wright might respond that he does in fact list a negative tradeoff to great wealth: homelessness. Sure enough, the same paragraph alluding to the alleged horrors of inequality includes a statistic about black homelessness in Dallas. While blacks “make up 40 percent of the homeless population nationally,” in Dallas the figure is 63 percent. Maybe, but pairing the two is a non sequitur. What does wealth creation have to do with people lacking shelter? It’s more realistic to say that lots of rich real estate developers in Texas have gotten that way through the mass production of housing for the various income classes.
So with wealth and homelessness Wright made two unsupportable assertions that are easy to expose as such. In Wright’s defense, he interviews the head of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, along with Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson on the subject of it. Important here is that Johnson acknowledges that many homeless “don’t want to live in shelters.” Both acknowledge that there’s a big mental health aspect to a lack of shelter. It seems all three would struggle to find a correlation between wealth creation and homelessness, which is why Wright did his book a disservice with his implicit attempt to tie homeless to the wealth gap. Why did he do it? The speculation here is that the left have their dog whistles too.
Even more puzzling is Wright’s assertion toward book’s end about Mexico; as in “imagine the wealth and power that would have been Mexico’s had Texas remained a part of it – a genuine rival to the gringo colossus.” Sorry, but that’s not serious. What made Texas, and what makes any city, state or country, is the people who populate it. People drive wealth and culture. Implicit in Wright’s counterfactual is that Texas just happened, as opposed to Texas (and the United States more broadly) being a magnet for talented people (including, quite happily, a huge number of Mexican people who left the dysfunction and corruption that has long defined Mexico) thriving precisely because talented people like Wright have chosen it. Seemingly forgotten by the author is that the list of backward countries that are resource rich well exceeds the list of those that lack wealth in the ground. So while the oil in the ground has surely helped define Texas, Mexico is hardly oil poor. Wright is a little too self-hating at times. Texas is great because of the people. Those people, including once again the Texans of Mexican descent, wouldn’t be there today if Texas were still part of Mexico.
Away from the politics and social issues, there’s certainly lots of interesting information within GST. Who knew, for instance, that Phil Collins was one of the world’s foremost Alamo artifact collectors after falling hard for the Davy Crockett myth as a child. Or that, one-fourth of all vehicle sales in Texas are pickup trucks.
On the subject of immigration from Mexico, he notes that roughly 122,000 were apprehended around El Paso in 2006, versus 14,495 in 2015. The previous statistic exposes as foolhardy the popular belief among some on the American right that Mexicans cross the border to go on the dole. If so, apprehensions would be the same over time. More realistically, border crossings increase when the U.S. economy is booming, and they decrease when it’s slow.
About Election 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, he notes that Bush “would have won by an even wider margin” under “the restrictions Gore requested,” while Gore would have won “if the recount had followed the procedure demanded by Bush’s team.” Wright is friendly with the Bush family despite policy differences, and writes of spotting Laura Bush at Antone’s (a world-renowned music venue in Austin) just before the 2000 GOP presidential primaries “in the company of friends, drinking and smoking, which you never saw her do.”
And while California is seen as the epicenter of technology, Wright notes that “Texas also tops California in exporting technology.” About this stat, it’s one that President Trump would love, and that’s not a compliment. Trump lives for the export of things. In California, the technologists produce very few things. Instead, the technologists design products and software only for it to be produced elsewhere. The wealth is in the design as opposed to the manufacture. This isn’t meant to minimize Texas’s importance to technology as much as it’s to say that numbers can mislead. While what’s designed in California is exported from elsewhere, the technology firms in the Golden State are some of the world’s most valuable companies. In short, California “exports” a lot more shares in technology companies than any other state. The latter doesn’t count in a trade balance that Trump obsesses over, but that doesn’t mean anything. California’s relative lack of technology exports is paradoxically a sign of wealth.
Notable here is that while Wright is plainly no fan of Trump, he falls into the trap that Trump remains stuck in about so-called “trade deficits.” In Wright’s case, he calculates that “after more than twenty years of NAFTA, that [trade] surplus had swung to a $64 billion deficit, the highest it has ever been.” Missed by Wright and Trump is that trade balances, by definition. The so-called “deficit” is an effect of investment inflows (and subsequent export of shares) that don’t count in the balance. That the U.S. has had “trade deficits” for most of its abundant existence is a sign of immense prosperity. We’re a magnet for copious investment.
Wright would have stayed away from economics in a perfect world, but in his defense it’s hard to stay away from economics when writing about Texas. Were it a country, it would be the 10th largest economically. And so he wrote.
Obviously oil loomed large. This was fine in a sense, and then Wright should perhaps be credited for having gone to a card-carrying member of the right (Robert Bryce) in an attempt to understand the role of oil in Texas’s evolution. The problem there is that Bryce’s oil fandom has blinded him to numerous economic truths. For one, periods when the U.S. energy sector is booming are near-certain signs of lagging economic growth overall. That’s the case because oil exporting is something that some of the most backward countries (Equatorial Guinea, Venezuela, and Libya, to name but three of many) on earth can do. That they can is a reminder that when the sector is booming stateside, the U.S. economy is moving in reverse. Up front, the energy argument being made is coming from a “global warming denier” who has nothing against rampant oil consumption.
The problem with Wright’s analysis is that Bryce is more an oil cheerleader, as opposed to a clear-eyed observer. For instance, Bryce told Wright that the fracking boom signaled that “Texas drillers are once again determining the price of the marginal barrel in the world market.” Ok, but oil is presently trading in the $70 range. The price matters simply because the U.S. energy industry was largely non-existent in the 1980s and 1990s, and during that time the price of oil went as low as $10 and $12/barrel. Assuming Texas sets the price of oil, as Bryce laughably presumes, let’s please go back in time to the ‘80s and ‘90s to when Texas was much less of a player, and when oil and gas were exponentially cheaper. The reality, one wholly ignored by Bryce and other energy cheerleaders, is that when the dollar in which oil is priced is strong (as it was under a Republican in Ronald Reagan and Democrat in Bill Clinton), oil is cheap. And plentiful. From around the world.
Wright oddly talks up the “strategic importance” of “energy independence,” but like “trade deficits,” he’s focused on what’s irrelevant. Stating the economically obvious, the U.S. could be 100% energy dependent, and at the same time embargoed by every oil producing nation on earth, yet we would still import and consume the world’s oil as though it had bubbled up in West Texas. We would simply because production is the driver of imports, and we would buy the oil from the non-embargoed. As the most economically productive nation on earth, we’ll never lack oil any more than we lack t-shirts, shoes and televisions even though most aren’t produced stateside. Oil is a commodity like any other.
What Bryce failed to transmit to Wright is an inconvenient truth for conservatives who’ve fallen in love with oil in modern times: it’s only economic to extract in the U.S. insofar as the U.S. Treasury severely devalues the dollar. The latter happened in the 2000s thanks to George W. Bush’s mistaken decision to not mimic the dollar policies of Reagan and Clinton, and the result was a blast to a not-so-glamorous past; the 1970s specifically. In the ‘70s like the ‘00s, the dollar decline led to a commodity boom. Getting right to the point, for the oil aspect of the Texas economy to boom, the rest of the U.S. has to suffer artificially high gasoline prices in concert with an economy-sapping weak dollar that renders gas nominally expensive in the first place.
Importantly, the decline of the greenback finally reversed in the second decade of the 21st century. That it did predictably coincided with a commodity rout, including oil. Bryce no doubt informed Wright that the oil crash was “caused by the shale boom,” and for doing so he should apologize to the author. Lest we forget, technologists in Silicon Valley and Austin regularly get rich by supplying the formerly obscure at lower and lower prices, yet we’re supposed to believe that success in the oil patch coincides with bust? That’s not serious. Wright consulted the wrong self-proclaimed energy expert in Bryce. To believe otherwise is to believe that the oil sector is literally the only one on earth that suffers the more that it meets the needs of consumers. Back to reality, the fracking boom was an effect of Bush’s unfortunate lurch away from the strong dollar policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Simply put, fracking locales like Eagle Ford were and are only economic to drill in insofar as a debased dollar makes nominally expensive what actually isn’t.
To be clear, Wright’s analysis of the Texas oil patch was in no way meant to glorify it. We’re once again talking about an author who has a strained marriage with much that is Texas. And so he insults, and when he doesn’t insult, he contradicts himself. About the oil wealth in Texas, Wright reduces it to “luck and a willingness to take risks,” as opposed to “talent or education or hard work.” The contradiction is that thirteen pages before the insult he wrote admiringly of George Mitchell’s engineering genius that helped give fracking life. So which is it?
The same applies to oil and its presumed impact on the climate, or better yet, the “global warming” implications of oil consumption. About global warming and climate, Wright has no time for skeptics given what he describes as a “widespread scientific consensus” about man’s impact on the environment. People who deny that “human activity affects global warming” are plainly nuts to Wright. But wait a second. Isn’t skepticism the basis of all science? With science, every presumption is tested over and over again. In short, it’s not science if it’s not subjected to endless skepticism. Not according to Wright. He’s convinced. You're an idiot if you don't agree with him.
Worse is that on the subject of the environment and oil, he once again contradicts himself. On p. 39 he writes that oil has “despoiled communities and created enduring environmental hazards,” but in describing what became the legendary Spindletop ten pages before, Wright notes that in the area where Patillo Higgins eventually drilled “[G]as seepage was so noticeable that schoolboys would sometimes set the hill on fire.” Did oil and gas despoil the earth, or are they of the earth? Wright doesn’t say. That he doesn’t raises a basic question: what if water powered the engine as opposed to oil. Would the environment in Texas be pristine for all the oil being left in the ground? Can oil really wreck the earth that it comes from? Inquiring minds want to know.
Whatever the answer, legendary Texas wildcatters like Higgins and Dad Joiner are to some degree what give this great state life. It would have been more interesting had Wright focused more on them than on the science of climate. Furthermore, Wright might in a quiet moment acknowledge that he’s flying a bit blind himself. Indeed, while there’s apparently “widespread scientific consensus” about a looming disaster related to warming, more and more people and financial wealth are migrating to the coastal cities of the world that are projected to be hit first when the presumed bill for climate inaction comes due. Can the rest of the world collectively not know what Wright, Al Gore and other scientists think is obvious?
Which brings us to GST’s politics. While Wright claims an inability to stomach the American-style liberalism that can be found on the coasts, he’s plainly comfortable with that crowd. Though a Texas resident since 1980, its politics haven’t changed him.
Wright divides Texas in half. “AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas – Trumpland. It’s endless bluster and endless ads. Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu.” And then there’s Wright’s Texas, what he refers to as “FM Texas.” It “is the silky voice of city dwellers in the kingdom of NPR. It is progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug – almost like California.” Comical here is that Wright’s FM Texas example is two NPR personalities who annually bike across Texas to raise money that will pay for bikes in Kenya for kids. His first AM Texas example? Infowars nut Alex Jones. Wright did his readers a disservice.
Jones and his freakshow conspiracy theories are used to draw a picture of the small-government crowd that is totally divorced from reality. The shame is that had he wanted to, Wright could have found reasonable proponents of limited government in much the same way that he could have easily found ridiculous AM Texas caricatures polluting the policy conversation in Texas. He has to know that, but then doing so would discredit his AM/FM Texas narrative. The good news for those who prefer smaller government is that while GST aims to reduce Texas politics to Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and homophobes like Dr. Steven Hotze, the reality in Texas is quite a bit more nuanced. This is no Texas resident speaking (I haven’t lived there since 1996), rather it’s someone who has read Wright’s book very closely. As he makes plain, the human inflow into the Lone Star state is substantial. The latter exists as a market signal, and a rather inconvenient one for Wright. Though “insecurity and inertia” keep him in Texas, the lure for non-Texans is once again substantial. That it is tells us that Texas voters aren’t quite the paranoid horror show that Wright wants readers to believe. Market signals are stubborn things.
The problem is that Wright can’t seem to accept the message of the market. Because he can’t, he cherry picks particularly egregious examples of policy extremism from Hotze, Jones and Patrick, and then mis-analyses others. Conservatives are fools for “slashing family planning” budgets, and this led to “a sharp rise in childbirths covered by Medicaid.” Except that Wright is oversimplifying the limited government view. No doubt some believe birth control runs counter to the Bible’s teachings, but others simply believe government shouldn’t have a role in the provision of birth control. There's a difference. To be against government providing a good or service is not the same as being against the good or service. This is a nuance seemingly missed by Wright. He equates lower spending per student in Texas as evidence of Texans not caring about education. That’s not serious, nor is his assertion that “the workforce of the future has already been handicapped” by reduced education spending in the state. If the latter were true, as in if the lack of spending were rendering Texans unskilled and stupid, then it wouldn’t once again be a magnet for strivers from around the U.S. and around the world. Left and right massively overrate the importance of education one way or the other.
So while GST was entirely too much about politics and policy to its detriment, it should be said that it would have been improved by efforts to get to know actual libertarians rather than reducing free thinkers to an “AM Texas” caricature. Libertarians broadly want choice, and they think most government should be local. That way people can choose their policy bliss. That Wright struggles so much with the latter to the point of disdain reveals him as more authoritarian than liberal.
Late in GST, Wright travels to Wink, TX. It’s where Roy Orbison grew up. To see the Orbison museum, Wright literally called the proprietor at home, and who came over to let him in. Wright got to pick up Orbison’s guitar, plus he learned the origins of some of Orbison’s most famous songs. It seems the albino singer had a rough life, was ridiculed by his peers, and his songs described his lonely misery.
Wright’s visit to Wink was a reminder of what God Save Texas could have been, and arguably should have been. There are so many great stories within the state, so many interesting people, so much culture. The book needed more of Wink, of Lubbock, of Marfa, of wildcatters with names like Dad, the genius of barbecue, chicken fried steak and Whataburger breakfast tacos, and yes, lots of football. Except that Wright wanted to talk politics. And he wanted to continue to talk politics. That’s too bad. It’s the difference between what’s a readable if sometimes annoying book, and a great book that is unputdownable.