[This is an invited, two-part guest post by Daniel Hogendoorn,* a Dutch postdoc at UCL in whose research includes Houston's flood-management. This post is based on research that will be a chapter in his dissertation, "The experience of difficulty in governing Explored through urban, flood and climate cases of evidence-making."--ES]
'Let us suppose that every political philosophy in a given time implies a technology or set of technologies to a particular pattern for its realization. And let us recognize that every technology of significance to us implies a set of political commitments that can be identified if one looks closely enough. What appear to be merely instrumental choices are better seen as choices about the form of social and political life a society builds, choices about the kinds of people we want to become.' (Winner 1984 p. 52)
- The historical persistence of Tropical Storms
In 1527, an expedition of six hundred Conquistadors set out to conquer ‘Florida’, as the Spanish called the land around the Gulf of Mexico. Fortune did not bless their journey. First, a hurricane sank two of the Spanish ships. Then, the commander foolishly sent part of his crew to march on land and the remaining men to sail the coast. The sailors vanished. The other men on land perished from disease, starvation, infighting, drowning and fighting with natives. Out of the original six hundred, only eight survived. These eight had escaped from the coast in a barge. But yet another storm wave stranded them onto an Island they christened the ‘Isla Malhado’, the Island of Doom:
‘As we drifted into shore, a wave caught us and heaved the barge a horseshoe throw out of the water. The jolt when it hit brought the dead looking men to. Seeing land at hand, they crawled through the surf to some rocks.’ (De Vaca 1542/1990, p.55)
The men resorted to eating their dead comrades and the natives took pity on them. Today, we can locate his Island of Doom at the barrier islands Galveston and Bolivar, where the Houston Metropolis meets the Gulf of Mexico. Among these surviving castaways was Cabeza de Vaca, a humanist and man of letters, possessed of great practical wit. For eight years De Vaca lived among the natives, as slave, as trader, and possessing some knowledge of medicine, as Shaman. Eventually, he escaped to Mexico City. Back in Spain, he documented his experiences of future Texas, in the first ethnographic account of the Americas. The customs and myths of the natives, the diet of 'prickly pears', the horrid climate and weather. Terrible heat and massive storms.
Fast forward to September 7 1900, when Houston was of little significance, started as an investment by two New York real estate men in 1836. Galveston however, on that Isle of Doom, was the main economic harbor of the United States. In New York, Ellis Island took the immigrants; Galveston took the goods, which paid for the mansions we also find in New Orleans. But Galveston and Houston were about to trade places. On September 8th the United States deadliest natural disaster wiped away the city and harbor of Galveston. More than 6000 people died from the surge and strong winds of the hurricane. The survivors abandoned Galveston, moved across the Bay to Houston at the confluence of the Buffalo and White Oak Bayous. A year after the Hurricane, in 1901, the lucky Texans struck oil at Spindletop. Houston became the U.S.'s economic powerhouse. The 'energy metropolis', 'the monster that ate Texas' had begun its sprawling rise.
The Hurricane of 1900 resulted in the Galveston Seawall. And when Federal winds were favorable, a handful of other preventative projects were realized. In yesterday's post, I argued Greater Houston exhibits a revealed preference against preventive policies; it is, in fact, an extreme case of distinct, stable, and prominent political values shaping technocratic policies.
By contrast, most discussions in flood management, however, are technical in nature. They concern, for example, sophisticated methods in evaluating empirical evidence (e.g., wind flows in Galveston Bay). Most deliberation by flood experts focus on technical merits of a plan. Discussions of how political values shape (and perhaps ought to shape) technocratic choices rarely occur. When I spent time with Dutch hydraulic engineers on Galveston, political values were shrugged off as a job for politicians instead of taken ex ante as a real design constraint.
Preventive policies tend to misfit with 'East Texas' values. Large scale preventive policies signal to citizens that an increase in government bureaucracy and taxation is possible: that such measures need land, and property-rights might be infringed; that there is no such thing as full control without externalizes, such as displaced flood waters or a false sense of security; that measures will obscure vistas and lower some property values. Elected officials ignore discussing would-be-preventative-policies at public events, for fear of losing elections, which occur for a great variety of public jobs, and which depend on the donations (and open bribing) by powerful backers. Hence no preventive control policies happen, despite a long history of the same disastrous weather. In this post, I want to describe the almost pristine historical settlement of political values in Greater Houston, stable – up until today – over time.
- The Generation and Stability of 'East Texas' Values
For the settlement of 'East Texas' values, we have to revisit the history between where we left De Vaca in 1527 and the 1900 hurricane. In the sixteenth century, Texas became part of Mexico in the Spanish Empire. And when Mexico became an independent empire in 1821, it struggled with its Texan part. Texas was empty, with natives decimated and nomadic because of the harsh climate. When the French in Louisiana started to arm the natives against the Mexicans, the territory became a policy headache. In a historical irony, the Mexicans invited settlers from the former colonies, and gave them rights to bring more settlers. And in they came from Georgia and the Carolinas. This did not go unnoticed to Tocqueville, who remarks in Democracy in America:
‘I have previously spoken of events in Texas. The inhabitants of the United States are day by day gradually infiltrating into Texas where they acquire land and, although obeying the laws of the country, establish the dominion of their language and their way of life. The province of Texas is still under Mexican rule; but soon you will not find any more Mexicans there’ (Tocqueville 1840/2003, p. 481)
With few opposing powers, when the Anglo-Saxon settlers had virtually no competing political views to confront; they could impose public expectations. These families brought with them a host of expectations on governing, on how to manage private organizations without a sovereign, and on how to maximize profits.
Where did these expectations originate before they traveled to the Lone Star state?
According to Woodard (2012), these political ideas arose on the Caribbean Island of Barbados.
On Barbados, the English had settled a notorious slave economy on rum, cotton and plantations. At first, these 'Barbados Brits' used the Scottish and Irish prisoners of war as slaves that Oliver Cromwell, with whom they kept warm religious affinities, captured in Britain’s turmoil of the 17th century. But as these prisoners of war ran out, African slaves proved a cheap replacement. These were imported at terrifying frequency. The Draconian, Barbados Brits, had cast their eyes to the encomienda system by which the Spanish worked the peoples of Peru and Bolivia to death. These rules were as lenient on owners as they were horrible and strictly imposed on slaves. The owners,
- developed racial theories to rationalize their profit from unfair treatment
And they formed two deeply settled expectations:
- they were themselves ungoverned within these virgin colonies
- they could expect continuous high profits
Barbados, in fact, enjoyed the highest profits of the Western Hemisphere. The plantation owners, however, eventually ran out of land. Outside the eldest born, the male offspring of the wealthy English landowners, could not enjoy the same prospects on the island. In 1670, these landed in what is now South Carolina, and then Georgia, and set up similar plantations. Just like their Barbados relatives, their management style led to the highest per capita income among white males in the budding United States. From here, they were lured by the favorable policies of the Mexicans. The political economic order of Barbados traveled with these families into Texas, which was still not part of those States. The high profits provided little incentive for the groups of slave-owners to change their ways.
Stephen Austin, now remembered as the 'Father of Texas' had inherited the title of 'empresario' (entrepreneur), from his father, which gave him the right to settle land on the condition he recruited more settlers. And he did. Austin brought in ‘the old 300’, the almost mythical set of settlers. Austin pushed for full independence and lobbied the U.S. Congress for help. [Austin framed his efforts as the vanguard of civilization, the 'Anglo American race' against, in the words of Austin, 'the mongrel Spanish Indian and Negro race'.] Texas became an independent Nation from 1836 until 1846, and then Texas joined the United States. Now, the settlers got a grant for statehood as a slave state. It thereby secured the persistence of their Barbados practices. Only the Civil War ended slavery.
Yet expectations about the role and extent of governing persisted, reproduced by practices anchored in the Texas Constitution of 1876. This Constitution is a curious beast, designed for robustness, as a security against change, with limited options for amendment (Texas Politics, 2014). As a result, it has not changed in significant ways since, even though the State has. One way to see this is that Texas has an economy and population larger than many nation states, yet it's houses of parliament only meet once every two years, a measure originating in a period when Senators traveled the enormous and sparsely populated state on horseback. The Texas legislature and Constitution persist more or less as it did 150 years ago. It has endured longer than other U.S. Constitutions (Texas Politics 2014; Chapter 7). As a result, instead of rules adjusting to demographics, the demographics adjusts in their public expectation to a settled constitution. The Texas Constitution imposes rules for a weak Governor and complicates the raising and spending of public money.
To be sure, Texans do not refuse free money from the Federal government (and has benefited from the U.S. Army Corps prominence during the New Deal), but such attention from Washington has been waning since the 1960’s and was not adequate at its height. Disasters since have not spurred much effort.
Most of the Texas State income comes from sales tax, so that the State has an incentive to stimulate consumption. With almost every public office up for election, officials must take care to fit their policy proposals in light of existing interests and mutually held expectations. Elections are expensive, and corporate donations to political campaigns are, when made public, legal. The labor force has few protections. And corporations, including Exxon and Shell, enjoy high profits and moral hazard. These expectations have remained invariant stripped from all the historical change.
Even though the historical causes have disappeared, and despite an increasingly demographically diverse population who differ in their political opinions, institutionalized and normative expectations on the role and extent of government persist in the public space. As such, these public expectations have acted both as a barrier to the development of systemic, preventive flood management policies as well as an enabler for the many innovative, idiosyncratic approaches that can be found in East Texas (as I showed yesterday). A management system with roots in the forced labor mines of Bolivia leaves the coast of Texas exposed, unprepared, and experimenting.
Cabeza de Vaca (1542/1990) Adventures in the unknown interior of America. Zia Books.
Tocqueville, A. de (1840/2003) Democracy in America. Penguin Classics.
Winner, L. (1984) The Whale and the Reactor. A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press.
Woodard, C. (2012) A history of the eleven regional cultures of North America. London: Penguin