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America’s Opportunity City: Lots of New Jobs and a Low Cost of Living Make Houston a Middle-class Magnet
David Wolff and David Hightower are driving down the partially completed Grand Parkway around Houston. The vast road, when completed, will add a third freeway loop around this booming, 600-square-mile Texas metropolis. Urban aesthetes on the ocean coasts tend to have a low opinion of the flat Texas landscape—and of Houston, in particular, which they see as a little slice of Hades: a hot, humid, and featureless expanse of flood-prone grassland, punctuated only by drab office towers and suburban tract houses.
Ever since the publication this spring of Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century,” conservatives and much of the business press, such as the Financial Times, have been on a jihad to discredit the author and his findings about increased income inequality in Western societies. Some have even equated growing attacks on inequality with anti-Semitism, with at least one Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Tom Perkins, comparing anti-inequality campaigners to Nazis.
What if they gave a recovery, and the middle class were never invited? Well, that’s an experiment we are running now, and, even with the recent strengthening of the jobs market, it’s not looking very good.
Over the last five years, Wall Street and the investor class have been on a bull run, but the economy has been, at best, torpid for the vast majority of the population. Despite blather about our “democratic capitalism,” stock ownership is increasingly concentrated with the wealthy as the middle class retrenches. The big returns that hedge funds, real estate trusts or venture capitalist receive are simply outside the reach of the vast majority.
When we think about American finance, the default image is of a pinstriped banker on Wall Street. But increasingly financial services is shifting away from the traditional bastions of money.
In an analysis of recent and longer-term employment trends, we have identified the large cities –those with over 450,000 jobs – that are gaining jobs in financial services, a sector that employs 7.9 million people nationwide. Overwhelmingly, the fastest growth has been in cities not associated with high finance, but largely low-cost Sun Belt cities, which account for seven of the top 10 large metro areas on our list.
David Peebles works in a glass tower across from Houston’s Galleria mall, a cathedral of consumption, but his attention is focused on the city’s highly industrialized ship channel 30 miles away. “Houston is the Chicago of this era,” says Peebles, who runs the Texas office of Odebrecht, a $45 billion engineering firm based in Brazil. “In the sixties you had to go to Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. Now Houston is the place for new industry.”
I’ve been friends with Charlie Sena for almost two decades. Charlie, a longtime entrepreneur, Democratic political operative and fundraiser for former Gov. Gray Davis, recently chided me about what he sees as my “negativity” about California and its future. My response was that, given its natural advantages, this region should not be in such a weakened condition. Decline, I suggest, is not an imperative here, but largely a choice.
California’s dream is shrinking inexorably, and only radical steps can prevent the condition from becoming permanent. Compared with previous economic expansions, fewer state residents and communities are benefiting from this recovery, which has largely been restricted to the small coastal zone surrounding the Bay Area, as well as certain parts of western Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
In virtually every regional economic or demographic analysis that I conduct for Forbes, Rust Belt metro areas tend to do very poorly. But there’s a way that they could improve, based in large part on the soaring cost of living in the elite regions of California and the Northeast. And one of the rustiest of them appears to be capitalizing on the opportunity already: that perpetual media punching bag, Cleveland.
In the town of Verona on the rural fringes of Madison, Wisc., there’s a Google-like campus that houses one of the country’s most rapidly growing tech companies, and one of the least well known. Founded in 1979, the medical software maker Epic has grown to employ 6,800 people, most of whom work at its 5.5 million-square-foot headquarters complex, which sprawls over 800 acres of what was farmland until the early 1990s.
The most important news recently to hit Southern California did not involve the heinous Donald Sterling, but Toyota’s decision to pull its U.S. headquarters out of the Los Angeles region in favor of greater Dallas. This is part of an ongoing process of disinvestment in the L.A. region, particularly among industrially related companies, that could presage a further weakening of the state’s middle class economy.
Across broad ideological lines, Americans now foresee a dismal, downwardly mobile future for the country’s middle and working classes. While previous generations generally did far better than their predecessors, those in the current one, outside the very rich, are locked in a struggle to carve out the economic opportunities and access to property that had become accepted norms here over the past century.
In the classic television show “The Honeymooners,” many jokes were wrung out of bus driver Ralph Cramden’s membership in the International Brotherhood of Loyal Raccoons, headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota. When Ralph mentioned in one episode to his wife, Alice, that among the privileges is that they could be buried at the “Raccoon National Cemetery” in Bismarck, Alice’s reply was that it made her not know “if I want to live or die.”
I, like most members of the middle class, particularly in California, just paid a tax bill that seemed less like my fair share than a shakedown by the Mafia. Increasingly, for people who run small businesses or earn a decent income, the tax bite is becoming ever more like in Europe, with total bills in high-tax states like ours reaching upward of 40 percent. It’s like paying the bill for a big dinner without eating the food – we get hammered like Swedes but without the free education, health care and other benefits of a more conventional welfare state.
As the recovery from the Great Recession stretches into its fifth year, the locus of economic momentum has shifted. In the early years of the recession, the cities that created the most jobs — sometimes the only ones — were either government- or military-dominated (Washington, D.C.; Kileen-Temple-Fort Hood, Texas), or were powered by the energy boom in Texas, Oklahoma and the northern Great Plains.
Silicon Valley’s biggest names—Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe—reached a settlement today in a contentious $3 billion anti-trust suit brought by workers who accused the tech giants of secretly colluding to not recruit each other’s employees.