The biggest Texas industries in 1960 were agriculture and oil and natural gas, and most of the state’s 9 million residents lived in small towns outside Houston, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.

Politics were simpler then, with conservative Democrats holding almost every elected office. Whites made up the majority and enforced strict segregation and systemic oppression of people of color. Any white man who showed up at a state university with tuition could attend, though few jobs required more than a high school diploma and the right flesh tone.

The biggest challenges businesses faced were the weather and a lack of good farm-to-market roads. Chambers of commerce demanded low taxes, limited government and lax labor laws, which the Legislature happily delivered.

Too many Texans long for those days of yore, and some politicians are trying their best to resurrect them. But the authors of a new book, “The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Power in the Global Economy,” explain why those days are gone and how continued success requires new thinking.

I’ve been pounding on this theme for years, but the book’s authors are far more qualified to make the case. They include Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and secretary of housing and urban development during the Clinton administration; David Hendricks, former San Antonio Express-News business editor; J.H. Cullum Clark, director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative; and William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Texas A&M Press gave them 300 pages to explore how far Texas has come, its current strengths and weaknesses, and where we might go next.

The Texas Triangle is drawn on the interstates between San Antonio, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. More than 80 percent of Texas’s population growth has been within the triangle since 1960, and 60 percent of Texans live and work within it today.

The triangle’s economic activity totaled $1.3 trillion in 2018, producing more than Mexico, Indonesia or Saudi Arabia. It accounted for 6.9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

Nearly 60 percent of the state’s population is non-Anglo, and soon Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group. Finance, insurance and real estate are Texas’s most lucrative fields, followed by manufacturing. Oil and gas comes in third, with business services fourth and government fifth.

“Texas is more closely linked to the world economy, and through a more complex web of connections, than ever before,” the authors write. “Now that Texas is an urban state, it must shed its own self-image as rural. Texas’s enormous growth requires new thinking about policies and priorities.”

Ask any business owner, and he or she will tell you the most critical need is a trained workforce. The authors demonstrate with detailed statistics how the state fails to provide Texas kids with the education they need to meet the economy’s needs.

The triangle’s rapid growth also has failed to expand access to health care. Housing in metropolitan areas is becoming unaffordable, taking up 30 percent of the average workers’ pay. Texas’ urban freeways are among the most congested in the nation, and our public transportation system is a joke.

When we don’t provide Texans with a good education, access to health care, secure housing or a convenient way to get to work, we set them up to fail.

“The question is whether these populations of color will be undereducated, underperforming, underproductive, and alienated, leading to an impoverished and contentious future for all citizens,” the authors write.

“The Texas Triangle” is not another liberal screed, though. The authors recognize that our success comes from a culture that limits government, keeps taxes low and encourages innovation. In addition to calling on Republicans to acknowledge the growing need for public services, the authors urge Democrats not to turn Texas into another California.

Looking ahead, demographers predict that San Antonio, Houston, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth will grow into each other. By 2050, the triangle will grow 148 percent to include 35.3 million people — about two-thirds of all Texans. The Texas Triangle will look more like today’s Tokyo-Osaka-Kobe corridor than the cotton fields of the past.

The question is whether Texas’ larger, denser population will enjoy a decent standard of living.

“The Texas Triangle economy will be larger, but how much larger will depend on how well the urban education system prepares students,” the authors said.

Will Texas schools begin computer science in elementary school? Will children learn calculus in high school to study artificial intelligence in college? How many languages will Texans speak?

Texas’ economy will require different skills and new industries in big cities. For a brighter future, we need to reimagine Texas’ identity and culture before innovation leaves us behind.

Written By Chris Tomlinson 

Chris Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and politics.

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