When bright young people start deciding they'd rather live and work in Salt Lake City than in Silicon Valley, maybe California has a bigger problem than its boosters want to admit.
The conventional demographic wisdom that the brains gravitate to the coasts is yesterday's news. Turns out, Salt Lake and nearby towns places like Ogden, Logan and Provo have increased their educated workforces much faster over the past decade than the rest of United States, and faster still during the current sluggish recovery.
That's one of the more illuminating facts that Chapman University urban development scholar Joel Kotkin brings to bear in a new report on "America's growth corridors," published by my colleagues at the Manhattan Institute.
The paper provides yet more evidence, albeit indirectly, for an old argument: California can no longer take its economic and cultural dominance for granted. Nice weather won't save us. Wiser policies might.
Yes, there is a good life to be had beyond the coastal enclaves, over the mountains, beyond the deserts, and far away. Kotkin identifies four regions across the United States that are beginning to outpace the traditional economic growth centers along the East Coast and here in the Golden State.
Those growth corridors include the Great Plains region extending from the Dakotas south through Kansas and Nebraska to the booming shale oil and natural gas fields in Oklahoma and Texas; the "Third Coast" comprising the cities and counties that stretch from Brownsville through New Orleans and Gulfport to Tampa Bay; the "Southeast Manufacturing Belt" that includes eastern Arkansas, Tennessee, parts of Kentucky, Georgia and the Carolinas; and the "Intermountain West," with Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado leading the way.
Traditionally, those regions lagged among college degree holders, lagged in personal income, lagged in innovation, lagged in culture. They're starting to catch up.
Observes Kotkin: "The fastest increase in educated people measured by increases in numbers of B.A. and B.S. degrees, can be seen across the fast-growing corridor mega-regions in Texas, the Salt Lake area, and Denver, as well as smaller, thriving 'micropolitan' areas in the Great Plains, such as Omaha, Sioux Falls and Fargo."
Another freshly debunked piece of conventional wisdom held that manufacturing in the United States was dead, the victim of rock-bottom Chinese labor. But as Kotkin notes, cheap and plentiful domestic natural gas supplies are offsetting high labor costs and fueling a manufacturing renaissance in the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast.
California, by contrast, has allowed much of its once-vibrant manufacturing sector to simply leave the state on the mistaken belief that an economy can stop building and making things and continue to thrive on innovation. It doesn't work that way.
For me, the killer chart in Kotkin's analysis shows up about halfway through the 34-page report. Using wage data and adjusting for cost of living, he shows the average annual wage in the greater Houston area is $75,256, versus $52,988 in the Bay Area and $46,411 in metropolitan L.A.
Reading Kotkin reminded me of a decade-old observation by Tom McClintock, now a Republican congressman representing El Dorado and Placer counties. He lamented how so many Californians chose to "abandon paradise for the godforsaken desert."
Never mind Nevada and Arizona. Ex-Californians are also making fine lives in the mosquito-infested climes of Louisiana, the vast, treeless expanses of Texas, and the badlands of North Dakota, because good opportunities are plentiful there, not here.
In short, California is the laggard now. We lag in employment, cost of living, even immigrants. Mainly, we lag in upward mobility and economic opportunity virtues that California's progressives once extolled and now take for granted.
It didn't have to be this way.
California's boosters are too smug about the state's long-term prospects.
We sometimes sound like jilted lovers: You'll come crawling back eventually! You'll see!
Sure, they say you can buy three times the house in Dallas or Houston for one-third of what you'll pay in the Bay Area or Orange County. But the weather is terrible, yahoos run the schools and good luck trying to find decent sushi or dim sum.
As Jerry Brown put it recently, "Who would want to spend summers there in 110-degree heat inside some kind of fossil fuel air conditioner? Not a smart way to go."
Texas in August isn't so different from Fresno, Riverside, and ahem Sacramento.
Except our taxes and utility bills are higher.
"To be sure," Kotkin writes, "New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Chicago will remain the country's leading metropolitan agglomerations for the foreseeable future." Obviously it's still possible to have a rich life and career in California. Our universities are still among the best in the world. Our farms feed people in 156 countries.
But who says California's competitive advantage will endure forever? An older generation chose to make a dynamic economy. The present generation has chosen a path of lassitude and inertia. Perhaps a future generation of Californians will make wiser choices.