One of the biggest (and unsung) shifts in American life since World War II is the population movement away from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt, an area stretching from the Southeast over to California. Joel Kotkin suggests some of these trends are changing, particularly an increase in the flow of people out of California:
Nearly four million more people have left the Golden State in the last two decades than have come from other states. This is a sharp reversal from the 1980s, when 100,000 more Americans were settling in California each year than were leaving. According to Mr. Kotkin, most of those leaving are between the ages of 5 and 14 or 34 to 45. In other words, young families…
So if California’s no longer the Golden land of opportunity for middle-class dreamers, what is?
Mr. Kotkin lists four “growth corridors”: the Gulf Coast, the Great Plains, the Intermountain West, and the Southeast. All of these regions have lower costs of living, lower taxes, relatively relaxed regulatory environments, and critical natural resources such as oil and natural gas.
Take Salt Lake City. “Almost all of the major tech companies have moved stuff to Salt Lake City.” That includes Twitter, Adobe, eBay and Oracle.
Then there’s Texas, which is on a mission to steal California’s tech hegemony. Apple just announced that it’s building a $304 million campus and adding 3,600 jobs in Austin. Facebook established operations there last year, and eBay plans to add 1,000 new jobs there too.
Kotkin attributes a lot of this to political and social change in California that is threatening the middle class. I wonder if we could look at this in a more positive light rather simply in the negative light Kotkin, a self-admitted “Truman Democrat,” paints California: these other states and areas may just have competitive advantages that they didn’t used to have. For example, the story behind California’s growth is well-known: gold rushes, available land, the rise of Hollywood in the early 1900s, government help such as the opening of military bases and defense contracts and highway construction, the growing connections between the United States and East Asia (Japan, China, Korea, etc.), and the weather. Places like Texas and Salt Lake City have learned how to compete against these factors and offer a different vision of the “good life” that is now appearing more attractive to residents and corporations.
I also wonder if there is a cultural story here. California was the place to go for decades. It was the land of sun, innovation, and fortune. In other words, it was “the cool place to be.” This same story isn’t as appealing today, particularly to conservatives who think of California as a liberal bastion. I don’t think Salt Lake City will acquire the same kind of cultural allure as Los Angeles but it is appealing to some who are looking for a different American narrative. Additionally, places like Austin and other “creative class” communities (Birmingham, AL as another example) offer enough “cool” without having to go to California.