The Bidness Myth

Why the image of the go-it-alone, get-the- government-off-my-back Texas entrepreneur is as bankrupt as Enron.

IF THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA is business, as Calvin Coolidge once said, then the business of Texas is bidness. The distinction isn’t just phonetic; our locution tells the rest of the world that there’s something fundamentally different about our economic model. From our primordial real estate impresarios and legendary cattle barons to wildcatters and information-age entrepreneurs, Texas bidness boasts a storied lineage of up-from-the-dirt, git-the-gummint-off-my-back innovators who have proudly borne the standard of a leaner, hungrier, more gloriously unfettered form of free enterprise—or so we like to think. Just the way we pare down the word to a couple of syllables and hard consonants amounts to a Texas declaration of independence bordering on a threat. You best watch your big-gummint-lovin’ Yankee ass; we fixin’ to do some bidness.

Dallas billionaire Ross Perot was the first to grasp the nationwide political potential of this mythos, setting up his pie charts about the federal deficit and basically implying, “See, you got to run the whole dang gummint the same no-nonsense way we Texans do bidness.” Despite his third-party status and on-again-off-again campaign, Perot won almost a fifth of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election, so it was hardly surprising that an MBA who had been a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise and a former CEO of the Texas-based Halliburton energy corporation came up winners eight years later. The media proclaimed the first “ CEO presidency,” but most conservatives had a more explicit understanding: Under the Bush administration—aided by the most powerful man in Congress, former Sugar Land pest exterminator Tom DeLay—the business of America would be bidness.

Ironically, the state that minted this bidness model would not fully adopt it until two years later, when a decade-long campaign to make Austin more bidness friendly culminated in historic Republican majorities in the Texas House and Senate. The 2002 sweep was touted as a climactic victory for the “business lobby,” a conclusion with which the Texas Association of Business eagerly agreed, bragging that the nearly $2 million it had secretly raised from dozens of corporate donors and spent on “voter education” attack ads against Democrats amounted to an “unprecedented show of muscle.” As a result of that flexing, Texans could expect to profit from an all-bidness government extending from the statehouse to the White House, run with all the virtues of Texas bidness: nimbly innovative, crisply competent, and fiercely dedicated to lean, mean fiscal responsibility.

Well, that’s what the prospectus promised. Critics will say that both the statehouse and the White House have been run like a real Texas bidness—Enron—and even friends have been more shocked than awed. At the White House, forget about a bidness model where failed managers get promotions and clueless cronies get heckuvajob plaudits. Let’s just cut to a bottom line so egregiously in the red that it has conservative economists seeing red themselves. The grumbling on the fiscal right has largely been sotto voce, but in February one of the nation’s most respected supply-side gurus, former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett (recently of the Dallas-based think tank the National Center for Policy Analysis), will publish The Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, which very publicly dings Dubya for the biggest spending spree since LBJ’s Great Society.

The president isn’t the only Texas entrepreneur who has turned out to be a closet Keynesian. Two decades ago, DeLay went to Washington to get government off the back of small bidnessmen like himself, but as House majority leader (until his recent indictment), he has force-fed bloated budgets. In 2004 the Boston Globe found that the number of pork barrel projects secretly larded onto appropriations bills was up a mere 7,000 percent from the 1994 Congress, which was the last one controlled by Democrats. DeLay went so whole hog to pass the administration’s $400 billion prescription drug benefit for senior citizens (a bill that made many fiscal conservatives wonder if the administration was on drugs) that he promised to back the political aspirations of a balky House Republican’s son in exchange for the gentleman’s vote, a shakedown that got DeLay spanked by his own House’s ethics committee. Yet in the wake of still more deficit spending for hurricane relief, when the Washington Times asked DeLay to suggest areas in which some of those costs could be offset, Whole Hog Tom declared an “ongoing victory” against government spending, noting that if any fat remained in the federal budget, he couldn’t find it.

Meanwhile, back at the statehouse, the wholly owned Seventy-ninth Legislature was flunking school finance. The “education lobby”—those pesky PTA moms, teachers, and school administrators—was scapegoated for an impasse that extended over one regular and two special sessions in 2005, but the real problem was the head-butting between two successful bidnessmen, House Speaker Tom Craddick, the most powerful man in state government, and his archrival, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. And where was the “business lobby” that claimed to have paid for all this corporate efficiency? Bickering among themselves, with property-rich businesses and labor-intensive employers unable to decide how to reallocate the property tax burden on homeowners. In the end, Craddick, an almost compulsive wheeler-dealer in his private-sector life, refused to deal and decided to wait for the state Supreme Court to legislate school finance from the bench.

The bidness administration that was supposed to take off like

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