Editor’s note: This essay is part of our 60th anniversary issue, which can be viewed in full here.
After a thorough repudiation in November—by the conservative voters who showed up to the polls and by the minorities who didn’t—Texas progressives need a new path forward.
Our state’s governing philosophy of rugged individualism and minimal, crony government looks now like it will reign for years. But this approach, if left in place, will have severe consequences for Texas’ future. Our state desperately needs robust public investments to ensure prosperity for our growing majority-minority population with its large percentage of disadvantaged students. If our burgeoning minority population doesn’t raise significantly its educational attainment, job skills and productivity, we all will be Texas toast. We will reside in a Third World economy.
Today’s monumental demographic changes, ruthless global competition, rapid technological change and Gilded Age economic inequality call for a bold, clear progressive economic agenda for Texas’ future. Texas progressives need the courage to articulate such an agenda and stop tolerating the same 20-year-old consultant-driven pablum.
We require an agenda that addresses the need of our growing population of struggling Texans for real economic opportunity: for well-funded, well-run public schools; for high-quality, all-day child care and early education; for affordable, accessible health care; for first-rate roads and mass transit; all of which would be paid for by progressive taxes on the affluent. To most Texas Democratic political consultants, these policies are suicidal, downright mad. But then their win/loss record lately isn’t exactly bragging material, is it? Progressive economic policies aren’t only essential for our state’s future prosperity, they will be a message to the more than 4 million minority Texans who are eligible to vote, but who don’t turn out at the polls, that their votes could tangibly improve their lives.
Even as we’re lost in a right-wing wilderness, progressives have an opportunity in Texas now. Our current anti-government leaders have a you’re-on-your-own philosophy when we need a we’re-all-in-this-together philosophy. Our leaders don’t understand that a number of Texans are living well today on the public investments made by past generations of Texans in higher education and in roads. The current oil and gas boom fueling so much of our current prosperity is also the result of past public investments in infrastructure that’s beginning to crumble. The boom itself will be relatively short-lived. Our current leaders’ ideological blinders, smugness and country-club insularity have made them oblivious to our state’s huge need to rebuild our public education and economic infrastructures for our growing numbers of disadvantaged and struggling people. The current governing philosophy assures general economic and societal decline.
The global economy becomes more competitive every day. Unless we provide better educational opportunity for our growing majority-minority student body, in 25 years Texas will go from 19 percent of our adult population lacking a high school degree to 30 percent. These unskilled workers will be unemployable and frustrated. Our mean annual household personal income, according to renowned demographer Steve Murdock, will decline from $66,333 today to around $58,574 by 2050. We will be the most uneducated, uncompetitive and unproductive state in the country. We will be a backwater.
But a progressive economic agenda offers hope for Texas. If we make the public investments in education to bring our minority students’ general level of educational attainment to that of Anglos, our mean annual household income, per Murdock, will nearly double to $131,916. The way to achieve this is an agenda that makes essential investments in our people, establishing effective early education, child care and after-school programs for our many lower-income, high-need students. Our public schools will need well-paid, well-trained successful teachers.
Unlike Texas’ current leaders, I believe the logic of the free market applies to Texas teachers. When you pay them $7,000 less than the national average, most of the good ones will leave for less demanding work with better pay. Texas progressives, however, have to acknowledge and embrace that better schools require not only abundant, equitable funding, but also reform and accountability. Opposing Common Core standards and teacher merit pay are disservices to our 5 million students, as President Obama has recognized nationally.
We also must ensure every Texan has access to affordable, quality health care. Healthy Texans are more economically productive, and they live longer. They also have the security to change jobs, improve their skills and start new ventures.
These public investments offer real economic opportunity, not the faux “economic miracle” of mostly low-wage jobs we’ve seen in recent years. But this agenda requires lots of revenue. Struggling middle- and lower-income Texans cannot pay more in state and local taxes, because their tax burden is already much higher than that of affluent Texans: The poorest 20 percent of Texans pay 14.6 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the middle fifth pay 6.8 percent, and the top earners pay only 3.6 percent. Rich Texans will squeal if they pay their fair share, but they will benefit in the long run from an educated, productive and large middle class buying goods and services and performing skilled work. And their kids, in turn, will not have to hire security guards and buy kidnap insurance to keep the underclass away.
Progressives also need to level with each other and other Texans that increasing business taxes is not going to produce the revenue we need and would likely be counterproductive. Our companies compete globally and yet today pay some of the nation’s highest state and local taxes. That’s because of our high sales and property taxes. We all know the real answer: a progressive state income tax. Say it, progressives; you won’t choke. Without a graduated state income tax, there will be no genuine progressive economic agenda.
Texas’ future prosperity depends on Texans standing tall for large public investments in economic opportunity. Not only would such a program provide economic prosperity, longer lives and an educated population, it would provide 4 million progressive Texas non-voters a reason to show up at the polls. Then Texas really would become a progressive, prosperous state.