Naked City

Missing Digits

In Austin, the Democrats and the Dells sure make a cute couple. The breadwinning Dells drive the economic machinery, paying liberal salaries without fouling the air and water, while the Dems crusade for common decency to the poor. They'd love to get married, but there are problems. Old Daddy Democrat was too miserly to improve his estate with good schools and a digital infrastructure, and the Dells are just aghast at the yokels who show up at their personnel office. But the Dems are afraid they'll be disinherited if Daddy catches them raiding the till to aid the common folk. Will the relationship survive?

Last Saturday at a downtown symposium sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council, high-tech industry leaders met with state and local politicians to assess whether Texas is ready to support its blushing new economy. Findings presented by a representative from the Democratically aligned Progressive Policy Institute showed that while Texas is tops at wooing hot market leaders to its soil, its education system is unprepared to produce the talent that the high-tech industry demands. Moreover, while the influx of microelectronic and computer companies has fired up economies in the state's urban centers, rural areas, which still constitute several thousand square miles in Texas, have yet to harness the boom.

Texas is one of the top 10 exporting states in the nation, reported PPI policy analyst Randolph Court. That bodes well for Texas' ability to enter future world markets. But when it comes to producing scientists, engineers, and professionals, Court diplomatically conferred, Texas is below the 50th percentile. Investments in digital government? Not so great, either.

Texas ranks 48th in the nation in literacy, and its per capita spending on social services compares more closely with urban Mexico than Massachusetts. As the Hispanic population grows, observed Corpus Christi Rep. Jaime Capelo, the state could find itself too poor and needy to provide widespread technological education. "We need to be very afraid," said Capelo. "If our constituency is well-educated, we're going to be able to make changes; but if they're poor, then the resources of the state are going to be spent on what those people need, which are social service programs. ... We have to perceive this as a crisis."

"'Crisis' is probably too light a word from my perspective," responded Dell Computer Corp. vice president Rosendo Parra, who reported that companies like Dell are creating jobs at twice the rate of Texas' population growth. "There are more good jobs than there are qualified people," agreed Tom Meredith, also from Dell. Meredith called on Democrats to uphold their traditional role as the "centrists between laissez-faire government and government being all things to all people" -- meaning, in less formal parlance, "Don't tax us too much, but teach these kids how to read."

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson pressed the Dell officials for advice on how to prepare students for the modern economy and avoid a widening digital divide. He got little help aside from observations that students need fewer "static" skills and a higher capacity for "lifelong learning." Court added that states currently prospering in the modern economy offer a high quality of life, and, rather than trying to hold labor costs down, attract a highly skilled workforce that drives salaries up. Entrepreneur Paul Hobby, scion of the famed aristodemocratic Texas clan, put it more bluntly: "To avoid the great divide, you have to always be subsidizing the bottom."

That led David Farabee, a Wichita Falls representative, to ask how rural areas with shrinking tax bases were going to educate and retain their best and brightest if everyone moves to Austin.

To which Hobby responded: "It's a horrible situation, and I look forward to your leadership in the House."

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Democratic Leadership Council, Progressive Policy Institute, RandolphCourt, Jaime Capelo, Dell Computer Corporation, Rosendo Parra, Tom Meredith, Kirk Watson, Paul Hobby, David Farabee

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