One of Orange County’s top executives asked me over lunch recently why Southern California has not seen anything like the kind of tech boom now sweeping large parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. In many ways, it is just one indication of how this region – once seen as the cutting edge of American urbanism – has lost ground not only to its historic northern rival, but also to some venerable East Coast cities, as well as the boom towns of Texas and the recovering metropolitan areas of the Southeast.
This divergence became particularly clear to me as I put together the most recent Forbes Best Places for Jobs with Pepperdine University economist Mike Shires. Our rankings focus heavily on momentum: What areas are growing fastest now and have made the best progress over the past decade. For me, a 40-year resident of the Los Angeles Basin (Shires is a native of San Diego), the results were far from encouraging.
To be sure, Los Angeles, Orange County and Riverside-San Bernardino are up somewhat from their dismal showings in past years, in part due to the housing recovery. But none did well enough to ascend even to mediocrity. Yet, of 66 regions with more than 450,000 jobs, Los Angeles ranked No. 49, while Riverside-San Bernardino clocked in at No. 45, and Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine did best, with a still-less-than-middling No. 38.
These rankings were way below those registered in the country’s emerging economic powerhouse, Texas, which placed a remarkable four regions in the top 10 (Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Austin) or rising burgs such as No. 2, Nashville, No. 3, Salt Lake City, and No. 9, Denver. We also got smoked by such low-exposure places as No. 13, Columbus, Ohio, No. 15, Oklahoma City, and No. 16, Indianapolis.
But our relative decline is not merely a reflection of the natural effects of lower costs and better business climate. We also lagged well behind such famously expensive, and hyper-regulated, places as No. 14, Seattle, No. 17, Boston, and No. 18, New York City. Worse of all, Southern California was left completely in the dust by its two great interstate rivals, the No. 1-ranked San Francisco Bay Area and No. 7-ranked San Jose/Silicon Valley. The only California cities to do worse than the Southland were No. 56, Oakland, and No. 57, Sacramento.
Why is the Southern California economy lagging, even in this recovery? Much of the answer can be found by looking at the information sector, which is driving much of the Bay Area’s growth. As my luncheon partner, who is investing heavily in the Silicon Valley, suggested, the entire wave of new tech companies has largely bypassed Southern California.
This is not merely a question of achieving less growth, but actually losing ground, while the Bay Area metros soar. Since 2007, for example, the information sector – which includes software, media and entertainment – surged 18 percent in the San Francisco-San Mateo area and by a remarkable 25 percent in the San Jose-Silicon Valley region. In contrast, the Los Angeles information sector declined by 7.3 percent, while in Orange County, once a tech hotbed, it dropped by 21 percent.
These declines impact not only demonstrably tech-oriented jobs, but also professional and business services that often serve tech clients. Over the past five years, these jobs have been growing smartly in San Francisco and decently in Silicon Valley, while declining in both Orange County and Los Angeles. Only recently have these sectors showed any sign of recovery in the Southland, but at a far weaker rate than in the Bay Area.
Why is this happening? Certainly the answers are complex. Historically, the L.A.-Orange County tech economy has been strongly tied to aerospace and defense, and these sectors have been declining under President Barack Obama. The defense sector also has tended to shift toward more politically potent places like Texas, Georgia and Alabama, where politicians actually work on behalf of industrial jobs. With the exception of drone technology, the Southern California region’s aerospace industry, as one analyst put it, has become “dormant,” a victim of a talent drain and a gradual withdrawal of aerospace giants, most recently, Northrop, from the region.
Like Los Angeles, Silicon Valley’s tech community was largely birthed by the Defense Department and NASA, something rarely acknowledged by the region’s hagiographers. But, starting in the 1980s, the Bay Area began to apply early innovations in semiconductor design and software to other industries, such as personal computers, the Internet and, more recently, social media and mobile devices, something that has generated not only jobs, but also buzz.
Capital, too, has played a role. The L.A. area has lots of rich people, but a relatively weak venture capital community. The Bay Area has roughly five times as much venture capital – more than $10 billion – as the far more populous L.A.-O.C. region. New York and New England also enjoy far more money in local venture investment firms than does Southern California.
Politics and image-making also has contributed to the Southland’s eclipse. California politics are now almost totally dominated by Bay Area politicians – from Gov. Jerry Brown to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris. Both our U.S. senators are from San Francisco and its environs. Their economic orientation, when they have one, tends to be to worship at the altar of allied Bay Area software giants, like Google, and social media firms such as Twitter or Facebook. Life in cyberspace makes less-direct demands on green “progressive” sensibilities than making airplanes or garments, or the work of processing trade with Asia.
In general, the Bay Area economic mindset tends to disdain the tangible economy – manufacturing, wholesale trade, construction – critical to the more diverse and more blue-collar-oriented Los Angeles-area economy. California’s tight land-use regulation and soaring energy prices do not much impact the Bay Area giants, since they simply shift their energy-intensive operations to places like Texas or Utah. And, as for soaring housing prices, people who cannot afford Bay Area prices also can be shifted to Salt Lake City, Austin, Texas, or Raleigh, N.C.
In contrast, Southern California, like much of the Central Valley, is far less able to slough off the green-dominated policies of the Bay Area political cliques. Los Angeles, for example, still has 360,000 manufacturing jobs, down more than 18 percent since 2007, and Orange County has an additional 160,000 such jobs, after a drop of 11 percent the past five years. In contrast, San Francisco-San Mateo has only 36,000 industrial jobs. These, too, have been declining rapidly, but have far less impact on the economy than down here.
Then, there’s the question of image. According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek survey, San Francisco ranked as “best city” to live in. Suburban San Jose ranked No. 33.
Los Angeles? Try No. 50, behind such places as Cleveland, Omaha, Neb., Tulsa, Okla., Indianapolis and Phoenix.
In another survey, identifying the top 10 cities for “millennials,” Seattle ranked first, followed by such cities as Houston, Minneapolis, Dallas, Washington, Boston and New York. Needless to say, neither Los Angeles nor Orange County made the cut.
Is there something we can do about this decline? I think this is more than just a marketing issue. Southern California, a region that largely invented itself out of combination of real estate speculation and great climate, needs to rediscover the roots of its success. Once our entrepreneurs imagined and forced into being great things, such as massive water and port systems; they dominated the race for space and planned out the suburban dreamscapes of Lakewood, Valencia and the Irvine Ranch. With the possible exception of Elon Musk and Space X, Southern California’s entrepreneurial guile is now decidedly low-key – food trucks, ethnic shopping, reality shows, hipster-oriented lofts and shopping areas.
This limited vision extends to politics as well. As recently as the 1980s, the region boasted an aggressive business community that bullied Sacramento and bestrode Washington like a colossus. Now, our business leaders cringe like supplicants before well-funded greens, racialist warlords and public employee unions. We need business and community leaders to match the increasing arrogance and audacity of the Silicon Valley oligarchs, to force legislators to address the needs of our economically diverse, and still tangibly oriented economy.
This also requires that the cultural resources of the region – Hollywood, the fashion industry, universities and colleges – become more engaged in something larger than protecting their narrow interests. At some point, they should realize that, as our region loses luster, so, too, does the fundamental attractiveness of their institutions and industries.
Until this happens, Southern California – despite its cultural richness, ideal climate and great history of economic vigor – will continue to lag, performing, at best, to its current level of underachievement, slouching toward a permanent state of mediocrity.
This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Crossposted on New Geography