The Rise and Fall of States

I was born and grew up in Louisiana, a 3rd generation New Orleanian on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family. It was a prosperous place and had been for as long as anyone could remember. It was a natural commerce hub at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and if that wasn’t enough, huge oil and gas deposits fuelled (ahem) the prosperity I remember in my youth. Although I can’t say it felt like prosperity at the time. It felt normal.

Sometime in the 1980s something happed to oil. Suddenly, things weren’t so good any more. Looking back, it was mostly met with a sort of denial, even as the city emptied out and it seemed like everyone was moving somewhere else, mostly to Houston.

For whatever reason, Houston somehow took over New Orleans’ place as the main hub for the petrochemical industry, and turned itself into a modern American metropolis. Meanwhile, New Orleans seemed to sink into decadence like a character from a Tennessee Williams stage play.

I went away to college on the east coast right around this time, and being young, I didn’t see anything unusual about the changes taking place. The friendly, easygoing place I grew up in had turned, well, ugly. By no coincidence a racist huckster named David Duke became prominent in local politics, nearly becoming governor. Still I didn’t see any connection, and neither did anyone else I knew.

I always imagined I would move back to New Orleans and had a low level, ongoing search for jobs there. I was in tech and New Orleans wasn’t known for tech jobs but I figured I could turn up something. But I never did. Jobs there paid a small fraction of what I could make in nearby Texas. I recall my Texas salaries being about 5x of anything I could scare up in New Orleans or even nearby places. Meanwhile, Austin, TX became home and reminded me more than a little if New Orleans. It had good music, a free and easy spirit and a live and let live ethos not often found in the south.

After pretty much my entire adult life in Texas, I find myself looking at the same sort of decline, for the same reasons, and with all of the same symptoms, that I saw in Louisiana in the 1980s. The oil industry seems to be in serious and permanent decline, for a variety of reasons. The decline in infrastructure has become impossible to ignore. Finally a right wing lurch, politically, is happening that is unlike anything I saw in Louisiana.

Over the years I half-joked that I was an economic refugee from Louisiana. Soon I will be a political refugee from Texas. I watched the slow decline of Louisiana and have no interest in living through the decline of Texas. I am retired and don’t have much of a stake in this like I used to. I might have stayed in Texas for my kids, since it is their home. But my kids have no interest in living in Texas, which has surprised me a bit. I suppose we will do what Americans have always done in these sorts of times, move west.

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