Freakonomics Radio podcast host Stephen Dubner is the latest member of the national media’s coastal elite to visit North Texas in search of an answer to the question: Why is everyone moving to Dallas?
The podcast is done in the spirit of Dubner’s 2005 book, Freakonomics, a snappy look at socioeconomic issues. Its two-part Dallas series (Part One dropped last night) takes off from a City Journal article calling North Texas “the de facto capital of America’s Heartland,” and opens with Dubner at the airport on a rainy day.
Dubner says he and his producer were expecting to get a ride from Mayor Eric Johnson, who is recorded telling the podcaster as much. The mayor apparently stood them up at the last minute because of an “urgent family matter,” so the New Yorkers instead grab an Uber and head to Sonny Bryan’s, where Dubner drops his first “everything is bigger in Texas” line less than 5-and-a-half minutes into the podcast.
If you want to groan and turn it off at this point, I wouldn’t blame you: The “out-of-town journalist parachuting into Texas to marvel at the size of the onion rings and note that this place sure is different than New York or California” thing is pretty tiresome at this point, and people who do live here are already writing funnier or deeper explorations of our state and region’s growing popularity.
But if you keep listening, you’ll note that Dubner does a better job than most of distinguishing between the city of Dallas and its suburbs, where much of the region’s growth is actually taking place. He talks to the mayor about what his remarkable personal history says about Dallas, and to former Mayor Laura Miller about the dysfunction of our city’s government and its weak-mayor system. (“So the huge disconnect in Dallas is you have one person, one, who’s elected citywide, and they have ideas and they’re ready to go, and they can’t execute,” Miller says. “I get an email almost every day from Eric Johnson, the current mayor, just as a constituent, saying, ‘Oh, the council is doing the wrong thing, and the city manager won’t call me back,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ And he’s baring it all out there that it’s dysfunctional.”)
Dubner talks to economists about the role of taxes and Texas’ relative affordability in driving population growth. Dallas Museum of Art executive director Agustin Arteaga and chief curator Nicole Myers are tapped to demonstrate that North Texas is not completely devoid of culture. Dubner, to his credit, also doesn’t ignore how the region’s boom has too often left behind people in southern Dallas, or how a history of racist policies has shaped the city.
All of which makes it worth listening. Or skimming the transcript, at least.