A Policy Pivot?

February 21, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Climate change induces more erratic weather patterns. More dry and wet; colder and hotter. California has been hit by persistent drought. Texas and other southern states got walloped this week. Several dozen Texans lost their lives when electricity generation failed for several days this week. For two decades, Texas has adopted a relaxed regulatory policy that does not incentivize or require power generators to prepare for unusual events like this week’s cold snap. Texas legislators argued that these policies reduced costs and lowered bills for Texans. Other states with more stringent regulations weathered the cold snap because power operators beef up their generation system to withstand extremes.

Natural gas supplies 46% of Texas’ electricity generation. The valves and regulators on those lines froze because of a lack of heating equipment. Wind turbines supply 23% of Texans electricity but had no heaters installed as they do in other states. Because Texas has its own electricity grid, it has no power balancing arrangements with other states. Texans pride themselves on their self-reliance to the point of arrogance. They are the Lone Star State, Texans first, Americans second.

Through district gerrymandering a minority of Republican voters in Texas control policy. The state has a constitutionally weak governor with little power. The legislature promotes someone to the post who will be agreeable. Politics is heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry whose rights are senior to property owners. If a gas company wants to run a pipeline through someone’s property, an owner has a difficult fight.

Because Texas was part of Mexico until the 1840s, its laws and culture are influenced by the hacienda system set up by Spain in Latin and South America during the 17th century. In that colonial period, the Spanish monarchy took control away from parliament, imposed a uniform religion and a rigid centralized bureaucracy. Land in the Americas was parceled out in large tracts called haciendas to those who were loyal to the crown. This promoted a system of personal relations among landowners, people over principle, and a lack of growth and technological improvement. Like cuttings on a plant, the culture of white settlers in Texas were grafted onto this system. Texans adopted the “good old boy club” that has plagued politics in Latin America for centuries and made it their own.

Northern states were initially settled by colonists from England. In the 17th century, the English Parliament took power from the monarchy, a power shift opposite that in Spain. Religious and political diversity carried over from the motherland to the colonies and became institutionalized. Property rights, and the products of property could be conveyed to others. This encouraged a system of principle over person, a more impersonal exchange that fostered technological development.

Texas culture relies on tradition more than innovation, but the state provides a fertile and friendly atmosphere for innovative businesses from other states. Business growth relies on a flourishing human capital. Texas’ K-12 schools rank in the middle of the 50 states and above California, both with large immigrant populations and low English fluency (McCann, 2020). However, a state that cannot manage its power grid is not an attractive environment for business.

Will this crisis spark a shift in policy? Texas has long been captured by special interests, who are antagonistic to change. The past few years Texas politicians have stood proud, calling to California businesses, “Come here and get away from those regulations.” That cheery welcome has been tarnished this week. Business executives might wonder if Texas has other infrastructure problems. Texans hope that the fast-moving news cycle will turn its attention elsewhere.

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Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

McCann, A. (2020, July 27). States with the best & worst school systems. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://wallethub.com/edu/e/states-with-the-best-schools/5335

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