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Texans Should Think About Texas’ Economic Future

With greater investment in human and physical infrastructure, the entire Texas economy will flourish.

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Future challenges faced by the Texas economy with trade, immigration and border governance policies were the focus of a recent symposium convened by UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs and its Texas 2030 Project. Some eye-opening facts emerged.

Today’s Texas economy depends heavily on international trade and is built around technology, energy-related goods and professional services. Texas exports more goods than any other state by a large margin — 40 percent more than the next largest exporter, California. Yet the California economy is 50 percent larger than that of Texas.

The flash point reshaping U.S. trade policy is NAFTA. Economic studies show the trade agreement having a small, positive impact on the economy overall. In practical terms, the winners from this agreement gained enough to more than offset the economic pain of the losers. But there has been little effort to cushion these losses.

The result is today’s highly charged NAFTA debate, with winner and loser industries and regions. Since NAFTA trade is nearly half of Texas exports, Texas is one of the largest net winner states. But even within Texas, winners and losers co-exist: An expert identified major urban centers where most Texans live as doing well; along the border and in patches of West Texas, less so.

Immigration will also affect our economic future. As with trade, there are winners and losers. Studies show the biggest winners are those with the most education; the big losers were those with the least education. Texas is well above average in the share of immigrants in its work force — more than 21 percent — compared with a U.S. average of 17 percent. The jobs that immigrants hold are vital to some of Texas’ fastest-growing industries.

The most difficult and divisive problem faced by the Texas economy involves an unpleasant reality: drug and human trafficking. Along our border, these activities form a single, integrated underground industry. It makes aboveground activities more difficult and expensive, and it reduces the quality of life. The de facto security zone that now exists along the Texas border slows trade and commerce, and disrupts it wildlife, conservation and tourism activities.

Human trafficking has one direct link to trade policy — if diminished access to U.S. markets were to significantly reduce employment opportunities in export industries to our south, increased flows of migrants should be expected. Flows of unauthorized immigrants surged after the Mexican economic crisis of the mid-1990s.

At the end of the day, several points were clear. Texas’ recent economic growth and economic future are closely tied to U.S. success competing in a world economy.

The global industrial supply chains that were created because of NAFTA and other trade agreements clearly have provided a net economic benefit to Texas. Texans should resist changes to trade policy that do not take their interests into account. The large automotive assembly plants run by Toyota in San Antonio,and General Motors in Arlington, both highly dependent on component and subassembly manufacturing supply networks reaching deep into Mexico, exemplify how Texas gained from creation of global supply chains linked to our NAFTA neighbors.

Similarly, we are more dependent than average on immigrants in our industries. Texans should pay close attention to details of more restrictive immigration policies that are being proposed, because they may have outsized impacts on the Texas economy.

On the front line of an underground drug and human trafficking industry, our border with Mexico is destined to be a laboratory for immigration policy. Texans should work on developing new and innovative ideas, not sit back passively as others unfamiliar with our state contemplate costly and disruptive experiments in our backyard.

Texas’ future economic success lies in making our state the best possible location for industries shaping up as the future of Texas — high technology, energy-related products and technology, and professional services. Texas should be a leader in showing how investments in education, at all levels, make Texans winners from globalization, delivering economic benefits from both trade and immigration. With greater investment in its human and physical infrastructure, the entire Texas economy will flourish.

Kenneth Flamm holds the Dean Rusk Chair in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He co-directs the LBJ School’s Texas 2030 Project, which supports research-based policy analysis from a Texas perspective.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Waco Tribune Herald and the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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