We recently spoke with Michael Wood, the founder and president of Lone Star Policy Institute. Here is a little about his background, as well as his motivations for starting a public policy think tank.
Q: Tell us a little about your upbringing.
I was born and raised in Midland, Texas. My Mom was raised in Midland and Dad is originally from Muleshoe. They met at Texas Tech, and I came along a few years later. My dad’s side of the family was part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” – the first American settlers in Texas. Later, some of my ancestors went on to fight in the Texas Revolution. We’ve always been very proud of that. When I was in the service, our first two kids were born out of state (Indiana and North Carolina), so I had Texas dirt shipped to us to put under the delivery table. I didn’t want my kids to be born over anything but Texas soil. When I tell non-Texans about that they look at me funny, but Texans get it.
Q: If Texas is such a great place to live, why leave it to join the U.S. Marine Corps?
To serve my country. I wish I could give a better answer than that because it comes across so – I don’t know, cheesy or sentimental. But it’s the truth. I never wanted to be a general or a colonel or anything, I just felt like I should serve. Towards the middle part of college my interest in history, politics, and world affairs really deepened, and with it my sense of patriotism. Slowly, I just started to feel like I should contribute in some way and at a time of war, the Marines were the best way to do that. I don’t think that someone has to serve in the military in order to be a good citizen, or that going off to war is the only way to give back to America – but it just felt like something I had to do. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Nothing will ever surpass those years. I miss being around Marines every day.
Q: A Marine from west Texas seems like an unlikely founder of an urban policy think tank. How did that come to be. Tell us about your education.
Education is easy: undergrad at NYU with majors in Economics and History. After the Marines, I got my MBA from SMU.
My first love is history, especially American history. Like a lot of people that’s what led me to taking an interest in public policy. I read a lot of biographies, and a lot about the Revolution/Early Republic and Civil War periods. Lincoln is my hero. Lately I’ve been plowing through Deirdre McCloskey’s “bourgeois trilogy”. As far as current events go, I read The Wall Street Journal every day, subscribe to National Review, the Weekly Standard, The Economist, The New Criterion, and Reason. I’m in my truck a lot, so I also listen to a lot of podcasts. Every few months or so I develop a new enthusiasm which drives my wife crazy—last month it was blues music, in a few weeks it will be baseball, like it is every Spring.
Q: How did you come to your political and economic philosophy?
I think how someone came to believe what they believe is a lot like dreams – very interesting to the individual involved but pretty boring to everyone else. My path was a pretty common one: I was an annoying lefty when I was younger, and then I slowly changed my mind on things until one day I realized that I was completely different at the end of college than the beginning. My adolescent progressivism was based on some iconoclasm and a whole lot of ignorance. It was a very shallow and even manichean understanding of how the world works – if there was poverty then all we needed to do was pass anti-poverty laws! If there was evil in the world than it must be the result of evil men working to undermine the forces of good, probably through campaign contributions! I remember taking a course on the Cold War at NYU and being shaken to the core reading about the failures of the best and the brightest not only in Vietnam but also in addressing social ills here at home. These well-meaning, big-hearted leaders of the left wanted what I wanted and said things that I said but failed so miserably in so many ways. This type of thing (there were many other examples, like misguided efforts at economic planning in third world countries, the failure of FDR to end the Great Depression, the strong autocratic tendencies in early 20th-century progressivism, etc) combined with a growing appreciation for the incredible power of the free market to produce prosperity that slowly tuned me from a Naderite to a Reaganite. I even came to see that the best things about Bill Clinton were basically his right-of-center policies: NAFTA and welfare reform. I stopped viewing the market as something evil, or something that smashed the little guy, but as the single greatest idea in human history for reducing human suffering. Public choice theory was huge for me too. Reading James Buchannan et al really helped me understand things like the “Baptists and Bootleggers” phenomenon (how well-meaning types and self-interested types can often team up to use government power to the detriment of everyone else) and to see politicians and bureaucrats less as idealized defenders of the common good, and more like self-interested meddlers who should be given as little power over peoples’ lives as possible. One more: I gained a better appreciation of American government, especially the parts that check passionate, temporary majorities from using the federal government to override liberties.
Q: You are a National Review Institute Regional Fellow from the 2018 class in Dallas. What was your interest in NRI? What did you get out of it?
I was interested in NRI because I was a longtime reader of National Review, and I began to read National Review, because of William F. Buckley Jr. He passed my senior year of college, and I’ll always regret that I didn’t appreciate him until it was too late – I was in New York, perhaps just a few blocks from him at times, and I never even thought to take advantage of it. What a missed opportunity. I wanted to meet like-minded people in the area, and I wanted to talk with people about politics and policy in a way that didn’t revolve around the current news cycle. I met a lot of great people that I hope will stay in my life for years to come. The work NRI does is outstanding, and their fellowship program should be in every major American city from coast-to-coast.
Q: Ok. sure. You are true believer. But, what on earth possessed you to start a think tank?
The vision statement goes into this in more detail, but in short I felt like Texas needed a new think tank that would especially focus on state and local issues affecting our biggest cities. For everything that is right with Texas, there’s a lot of mismanagement, and ignorance about local matters, where a lot of public policy has a direct impact on peoples’ lives. I think that as we increasingly urbanize as a state and deal with the problems that come from that, Texas can lead the nation on coming up with studies and solutions. I’d like for reformers in places like Chicago or Los Angeles to say “Dallas had this problem and here’s how they solved it” or “Houston improved this public service without raising taxes this way” etc.
It’s hard to get good, quality analysis and information about a lot of what goes on at the local level. The information is there, I think, if you have a lot of time, and if you have a lot of experience in the ins-and-outs and arcana of local governance but more can be done. I’d like for LSPI to very soon put out “deep dive” analyses of every major Texas city – a solid report that goes into each city’s budget, taxes, economy, schools, regulations, public safety, etc. I’d like for us to put out white papers and other literature with ideas on how to improve the quality of life of Texans in these areas, and offer policymakers options on how to get there. I think a lot of the down ballot races, like those for District Attorneys or Tax Assessor, could use some policy input and analysis to bring a little bit of intellectual support to these contests.
But I do want us to be involved in statewide issues as well – everything from the school financing mess to regulations to corporate welfare. I think the state could use another voice looking at these issues and offering creative solutions.
As far as outreach goes, I want to reach out to groups and communities that the “right” hasn’t done a great job of convincing in the past. This is all a very big, very ambitious agenda which is only fitting for a very big, very ambitous state.