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Texas Is Dying

• November 11, 2013 • 12:12 PM

Rio Grande in west El Paso near New Mexico state line. (PHOTO: B575/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Lone Star State loves population growth, but that’s a faulty way to measure economic development.

If you think the situation looks dire in Portland, then wait until you get a load of Texas. Perhaps you read Tyler Cowen celebrating the Texas Way in Time. A better take comes from Erica Grieder’s book, Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas. Slice your brisket whichever way you deem fit. Texas loves population growth to a fault:

Forty counties in Texas have higher unemployment rates than the US, and 15 of those counties have unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher. Texas also gets mixed marks on wealth creation. The state ranks 28th in per capita income adjusted for purchasing power parity.

The dirty little Texas secret is that most of the state is the child left behind. But how could thousands of people voting with their feet be wrong? I’ll start with a provocation from Paul Gottlieb:

Tourism economies are more likely to be Population Magnets; high-tech economies are more likely to be Wealth Builders. Areas with rapid population growth are generally found in the sunbelt; areas with slow population growth in the frostbelt. One surprising finding is the large number of frostbelt metros that experienced above average income growth in the 1990s, putting them into the Wealth Builder category. We do not normally think of metropolitan areas like Milwaukee, St. Louis, or Pittsburgh as economic success stories, but by this particular welfare measure they are.

Population is an old-school box score for economic development. Numbers such as income growth are sabermetrics. Why Billy Beane or Theo Epstein hasn’t trickled down to Monday Morning Policy QB is the bane of my existence. Austin wins. Pittsburgh sucks. Somebody mail Richard Florida a check.

Lucky for me, I’ve got an economist on my side. Minnesota, decidedly not Texas, looking down the road:

Q: So is the potential erosion of worker productivity the biggest threat to Minnesota’s success?

A: Yes, it is. We’re going to have to have more output going forward. There’s only two ways to have that — either more people making stuff, or the amount of stuff each person makes increases. You can push on the “more people” side by attracting and keeping workers in the state, but that only goes so far. More productivity is going to be needed, and productivity and education are closely tied.

Emphasis added. More people will grease the wheels of economic development regardless of state policy. The kind of productivity Tom Stinson asks for demands considerably more effort and thoughtfulness. Texas has its fair share of shrinking counties. El Paso suffers from devastating brain drain. Those places require more than flag-waving over winning the population prize at the state level. Besides, how could more than 3.6 million people be wrong? That’s how many people left Texas from 2000-2010 (IRS data).

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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