Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Travelogue - Houston

Despite knowing a number of people here, I had never before traveled to Houston, America’s fourth largest city (a fact oft quoted here and little known elsewhere). After two days of meetings, lunches, and dinners, it’s clear that this is a town with its own rhythms, economic and otherwise. It is reassuring to know our whole country is not a complete slave to the same economic cycles.

Not that it’s all wine and roses here. Houston can’t stomach a 78% drop in oil without catching a cold. But this is a town that remembers well the boom and bust of the 70s and 80s and has modified its behavior accordingly. No one here thought $147 oil was going to last. A more cynical view might be that the run-up in oil was so fast that no one had a chance to make stupid lifestyle decisions. Either way, the real estate market here has held up and the restaurants are full.

As a free-marketer, it’s hard not to have some affection for Houston. There are no zoning laws, for instance. What sounds (to some) like a recipe for developmental chaos somehow self-organizes in a way that makes sense, and it also removes an entire layer of political corruption. Also, nearly everyone I met felt it important to tell me that Houston is a true meritocracy; come, work hard, succeed. They note that this is very different from Dallas and many other southern cities.

Nearly everyone here is a civic booster, which is refreshing coming from New York, a city that elicits complex emotions from its own even in the best of times.

Last night I attended a large black tie fundraiser to mark the awarding of the Dr. Denton Cooley Award to Dr. Michael DeBakey. Cooley and DeBakey are two of the giants of the medical world, and both are based here (where there is a huge medical research community). In recent years, a great feud had erupted between them, something everyone around the world with any connection to the medical community apparently followed like a soap opera. In Houston, the feud had practical implications because it hampered collaborative research.

In recent months, they reconciled at long last. The award, from one to the other, was to make it “official,” but sadly, Dr. DeBakey died just before he could receive it, so it was awarded posthumously.

Dr. Cooley is quite a character himself. He was once allegedly asked who the best surgeon he’d ever seen was, and he replied, in full drawl, “Well I am, of course.” Frustrated, the interviewer asked who the second best was.

“Me, when I’m drunk.”

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