Forming new opinions
Texas Tribune's "festival of ideas" brings leaders together to tackle state'sproblems
Noisy and alcohol-soaked and covered in mud? Not even close. No live bands and not a single festival chair in sight.
But then again, a political “festival of ideas” is a little different from last weekend’s Austin City Limits. Nor is it the El Cosmico Trans-Pecos music festival in Marfa, from whence Giant Noise publicist Elaine Garza had just returned when she Tweeted the following on Saturday morning from the University of Texas AT&T Center:
“From Robert Plant to Cornyn. #mylifeisnuts #tribunefest”
“We don’t care which side of the issue they take. We want people to care enough to get together with their friends and neighbors, with people they agree with and disagree with, and really get to work fixing what needs to be fixed.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was just one of more than 100 presenters converging on UT this weekend for the Texas Tribune Festival, a series of panel discussions and keynote speakers intended to instigate conversation on topics that touch the lives of just about every one of the 25 million people living in the Lone Star State. The four they chose: race and immigration, education, health and human services, and energy policy.
Hosted by the Texas Tribune, a two-year-old Austin-based nonprofit online news organization, the festival was born from an idea Tribune Editor and CEO Evan Smith had several years ago when he was at the helm of Texas Monthly. The idea tanked alongside the economy, as it dropped to the bottom of the priority list while the magazine struggled along with every other company in the country to survive, and Smith took it with him when he left TM and started the Tribune.
The festival’s mission, Smith said, is to motivate people to act and arm them with the knowledge to do so.
“We don’t care which side of the issue they take,” he said. “We want people to care enough to get together with their friends and neighbors, with people they agree with and disagree with, and really get to work fixing what needs to be fixed.”
Fairly bursting with excitement during his remarks to a drowsy bunch of coffee-drinking press types on site just after dawn on Saturday morning, Smith was already calling the event a success, saying the Tribune hosts some 80 events a year — those being the other part of the organization’s funding stream along with donations — but this one by far is the largest and most ambitious.
He didn’t mention why organizers, who included the team that runs SXSW, chose to call it a "festival." Presumably, it’s because the weekend of keynotes and presentations and Q+A panels and debates didn’t have enough of a target audience to call a “conference,” and it wasn’t introducing brand new concepts in the manner of a “symposium.”
The Tribune crew has been informally referring to it as a “festival of ideas,” and that may be the perfect name for it: A broad range of intellectual stimuli, debate fodder for the political-minded. No funnel cakes, but a veritable feast for the policy wonk’s brain.
And a cadre of local food trucks near the South Mall for anyone who wants to munch on Malaysian fare or tacos over a discussion on the future of the state’s water supply.
“This is a landmark day in Austin,” said UT President William Powers during opening remarks. “We gather for many things. We come together to gather for athletic events. People from come from all over the country and all over the world to gather in Austin, Texas for music events, SXSW, ACL. People come to the Texas Relays to gather for cultural and athletic competitions. Why not come to Austin, Texas, and gather for ideas? What a wonderful notion that is.”
UT student Jordan Humphreys, who scored a press pass and is blogging it on his Tumblr blog "techno-log" for a class, joked with his friends that they should get together and compare their schedules to see who was going to which show and whether they should try and hook up, “like ACL.”
Travis and Brett Grieg, both architects with a keen interest in energy issues due to their jobs, paid the $125 registration fee to attend the festival simply because it sounded like fun.
Right after Cornyn’s keynote energy speech, in which he focused on how DC regulations on energy companies just kill jobs, the young couple launched into a weighty discussion about socioeconomic psychology and experiments that showed people would do just about anything to keep someone else from getting ahead of them.
Weighty discussions for 9:30 am on a Saturday, when most people their age are just starting to identify the mysterious party bruises from the night before.
But that’s what a “festival of ideas” is all about, right? Nobody’s really making much news, but plenty of people are forming new opinions.
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, took a jab from Charles Foster, a Houston-based corporate immigration consultant, for saying that simply because immigration is a federal issue, that does not mean local police shouldn’t enforce it. Bank robbery, Farenthold said, is a federal crime, too - but that doesn’t mean police won’t arrest a bank robber.
On the race and immigration panels in the AT&T Amphitheater, guest speakers ranged from Hispanic state lawmakers of both political parties sparring over whether Latinos were hammered on by budget cuts, to Alejandro Junco de la Vega, the editor of Grupo Reforma, the largest print news agency in Mexico, saying that his country was “bleeding” and decrying the “dreadful things” that were happening there.
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Corpus Christi Republican, took a jab from Charles Foster, a Houston-based corporate immigration consultant, for saying that simply because immigration is a federal issue, that does not mean local police shouldn’t enforce it. Bank robbery, Farenthold said, is a federal crime, too - but that doesn’t mean police won’t arrest a bank robber.
“Should beat officers be required to ask, ‘Have you filed your federal tax return?’” Foster asked, to chuckles in the audience. “Taxes are a federal issue.”
Education experts and lawmakers traded barbs on a panel over how to fund education, with Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, making one of the most quoted observations of the afternoon:
“When the private sector lays off, it’s because the demand is down,” he said. “That’s not true” for education and the public sector.
Down the street at one of the energy panels, environmentalists complained that there were three Republicans and nobody representing them on a panel called “An Energy Plan for Texas.” They looked forward to a more balanced panel on Sunday featuring Public Citizen and the Environmental Defense Fund.
On the topic of health, Congressman Michael Burgess made his case against “Obamacare,” while panelists on Medicaid threw outhard numbers, including this: 63 percent of Texas Medicaid recipients are under the age of 18, some 20 percent of children in this state are uninsured, and that Texas Medicaid pays for half of all births in Texas.
Speakers on Saturday included several members of Congress as well as Tony Garza, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and Thomas Shannon, Jr., U.S. ambassador to Brazil.
The Texas Texas Tribune Festival continues Sunday.