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Have recent events dented your Texas pride? If so, you’re not alone.



TX – Tuesday afternoon, on Texas Independence Day, #ihateithere started trending on Twitter, fueled by Texans who, yet again this year, were wondering whether our proud state had lost its ever-loving mind.

The hashtag followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that he was ending the state’s mask mandate and reopening all businesses “100 percent.” The number of Texans vaccinated was rising, he noted, and the number of severe infections was declining. Small businesses were struggling to pay their bills.

Never mind that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just warned against reopening too fast. Or that fewer than 7 percent of Texans were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Or that all three of the scary, faster-spreading new COVID variants are loose in Houston.

“This does not remove personal responsibility,” the governor told his largely unmasked audience. “Personal vigilance is still needed to contain COVID. It’s just that now, state mandates are no longer needed.”

To many both inside and outside of Texas, the announcement was boggling — almost as boggling as the near-collapse of the power grid and widespread loss of water that had plagued the state only a couple of weeks before, leaving millions of Texans shivering in the dark.

Many Houstonians laughed to keep from crying. One meme showed the outline of the state surrounding the kind of sign seen at construction sites: “0 days without being a national embarrassment.” Another described the user’s status as “In a toxic relationship with Texas,” saying, “Texas tried to kill me last week. And it’s trying to kill me next week as well.”

Other people rolled with the one-two punch. On Facebook, Jake Walker of Sugar Land wrote that neither the outages nor the mask ordinances had dented his pride in Texas. Without heat or internet, he did what he figured his grandfathers must have done: He bundled up and read books. He doesn’t think that Texas’ mask requirement was having much effect anyway.

But in much of the Houston area, this Texas Independence Day was different from the 184 that had come before it. This year Texans were #hatingithere.

‘The 21st century is catching up’

“The problem isn’t Texas,” said Mimi Swartz, senior editor at Texas Monthly. “It’s the government of Texas.”

For decades, Republicans have so heavily dominated statewide elections that the real competition lies not in the general election, but in the Republican primary. Attracting moderates is a far harder path to office than revving up the base by railing against socialism and higher taxes. But will that pattern last?

“The 21st century is catching up to Texas,” said Rice University/Kinder Institute sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who’s studied the Houston area for more than 40 years. “The attitude used to be, ‘Who cares if it’s ugly? Who cares if it smells? We’re making money!’”

That low-tax, low-regulation attitude worked well enough for the city’s economy, which relied on extracting oil from the ground. But now, Klineberg said, the state’s major challenges are the stuff of government, not individual responsibility. Individuals can’t be responsible for educating the future workforce on their own, or for building infrastructure, such as an Ike dike, to protect the Gulf Coast from ever-more-threatening hurricanes and flooding.

Or to shore up our electric grid. Experts such as Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, have long argued that the market structure of Texas’ “deregulated” electric system doesn’t give power-plant operators enough incentives to weatherize or take other measures that would keep the lights on. Though energy prices spike when demand is high, for any given operator, there’s often not enough guaranteed profit to make it worth preparing for the weather that causes those spikes.

And it turns out that Texans’ love of a free market has limits — as former Gov. Rick Perry found out. “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” he said on a Republican blog.

On social media, Texans who’d melted snow to flush their toilets begged to disagree.

Science and business

In the post-Trump era, politicians seem ever less tethered to verifiable facts. See, for instance, Abbott’s incorrect statement that loss of wind power was largely to blame for Texas’ outages. And in choosing to reopen the state and drop the mask requirement, Abbott didn’t seek the advice of most experts on his own COVID panel; no doctors or scientists stood beside him at the press conference. After Abbott’s announcement, many Texas scientists seemed shaken.

At Texas A&M University, Ben Neuman, one of the world’s top coronavirus virologists, posted a video on YouTube in which he explains his deep opposition to reopening and lifting the mask order. “Science is simply what works,” he concludes. “That’s all science is. It’s things that work beyond a mathematical reasonable doubt. To turn away from that — to make policies that are possibly anti-science — does not seem a productive thing.”

Of course, no one has ever believed that scientists run this state. Maybe more surprising is how much less power Texas’ business interests seem to wield these strange days.

“When Abbott lifted state COVID restrictions, it was like watching water gush out of a pipe after the freeze,” said economist Vivian Ho, of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Texas has had these two big mistakes in a row. They’re both setting back economic recovery.”

Ho said that without the restrictions, COVID-conscious Texans who now feel less safe in public will be less likely to go out and spend money. And the likely post-opening increase in COVID cases will cause its own economic drag: Besides pain, suffering and lost work hours, the average COVID hospitalization costs $30,000. Taxpayers will pick up that bill for the uninsured, and insurance rate increases will cover it for those with policies. Either way, she said, the cost will be a drag on the economy.

Bob Harvey is president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the heavy-hitting business advocacy group whose members include Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell, CenterPoint Energy, BP and JPMorgan Chase.

No, he said, the partnership wasn’t pushing the governor to reopen Texas now or drop its mask requirement. The group’s formal statement on the reopening encourages Houstonians to continue wearing masks and encourages businesses to require masks and limit crowding: “Let’s continue to be responsible, with or without state requirements.”

“It’s simply a fact,” said Harvey, that without the state mask requirement, it’s harder for businesses to make their customers wear masks.

For instance, though H-E-B will encourage customers to wear masks, it won’t require them to. H-E-B President Scott McClelland told that’s in part to protect store employees from belligerent customers, who he said have caused nearly 2,000 mask-related incidents in H-E-B’s Houston stores alone.

As for the freeze outages, Harvey, who was previously an executive at Reliant Energy, is happy to explain in deep, wonky detail the many complex problems with Texas’ power market and electric system. The integrity of the power grid is important to Texas business, he said, but he worries that Texas legislators won’t make the difficult changes that Texas businesses — and all Texans — need.

“This stuff is boring,” Harvey said. “It’s complicated. It doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.”

Hyperpartisanship, he said, has changed business’ relationship to Texas government. A decade or so ago, business interests traditionally aligned with Republicans, but lately, conservative ideology has more and more frequently been at odds with business practicality — see, for instance, the partnership’s opposition to the 2017 Texas “bathroom bill” that targeted transgender people.

But at the same time as Republicans have moved right, Harvey said, Democrats have moved further left. “Ten years ago, whatever party was in power at whatever level of government, generally business was able to sit down with them and arrive at a reasonable outcome. But these days many business people choose just to back away and not engage. I think that’s problematic. It means that we don’t get good outcomes. But that’s where we are.”

Oaxaca, maybe?

This past week, rattled by the double whammy of the outages and the lifted COVID restrictions, many Houstonians were rethinking their relationships with Texas. Philanthropy officer Rachel Dvoretzky said that sticking with the state these days is like “living with a beloved family member whose self-destructive behavior makes it hard to hold on to why you still love them.”

On Facebook, longtime Texans discussed whether maybe it’s time to move. To Oaxaca, maybe? Louisiana? Vermont? Elizabeth Sosa Bailey, a sixth-generation Texan, was considering California.

But for Rebecca Bass, another sixth-generation Texan, giving up on the state isn’t an option. She’s not going to leave Texas, she said. She’s going to “fight like hell” to fix it.