In “Taking a Back Seat to Texas”, Joel Kotkin reports on the latest example of “CA to TX” corporate flight:
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.
The Toyota decision also reflects the continued erosion of California’s historic economic diversity, which provided both stability and a wide variety of jobs to the state’s workers. We have seen this in the collapse of our once-burgeoning fossil-fuel energy industry, capped this year by the announced departure from Los Angeles of the headquarters of Occidental Petroleum. Blessed with huge fossil fuel reserves, California once stood as one of the global centers of the energy industry. Now, with the exception of Chevron, which is shifting more operations out of state, all the major oil companies are gone, converting California from a state of energy producers to energy consumers, and, in the process, sending billions of dollars to Texas, Canada and elsewhere for natural gas and oil that could have been produced here.
Retaining these last outposts will be critical, as Southern California struggles to retain its once-promising role as a true global city. With the exception of the entertainment industry – itself shifting more production out of town – our region is devolving toward marginality, largely as a tourist and celebrity haven.
Still, I’m concerned less about the region’s reputation than about the economic trajectory of its middle and working classes. The Toyota relocation from Torrance will eliminate 3,000 or more generally high-wage jobs, something that usually accompanies the presence of headquarters operations. It will cost the region, most particularly, the South Bay, an important corporate citizen, as, over time, the carmaker will likely shift its philanthropic emphasis toward Texas and its various manufacturing sectors.
As did the oil industry, the auto industry, and, particularly, its Asian contingent, came to Southern California for good reasons. Some had to do with proximity to the largest port complex in North America, as well as the cultural comfort associated with the large Asian communities here. Back in the 1980s, the expansion of firms like Honda, Toyota and Nissan seemed to epitomize the unique appeal of the L.A. region – and California – to Asian companies. Today, only Honda retains its headquarters in Los Angeles (Nissan left in 2005), while Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia make their U.S. homes in Orange County.
Perhaps more disturbing are the fundamental reasons behind the Toyota move. According to Toyota’s U.S. chief, James Lentz, they weren’t even courted by Texas, which has fattened itself on California’s less-competitive business climate.
Some of Toyota’s reasoning is geographical. The port link is less essential now since close to three-quarters of Toyota’s vehicles sold in the U.S. are built here, up from 58 percent in 2008. At the same time, the growth of the “Third Coast” ports – Houston, Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Tampa, Fla. – buoyed by the widening of the Panama Canal, makes it increasingly easy to ship components or cars in and out of the central U.S…
What is too rarely understood is the link between production skills and high-end jobs. The Toyota jobs that are leaving L.A. County are largely white-collar and skilled. Toyota engineers will be headed to Texas, and many also to Michigan, where, despite the travails of the past few decades, the engineering base is already very deep – roughly twice as strong per capita as formerly engineer-rich Los Angeles.
This link between manufacturing and higher-end technical jobs is rarely appreciated among our political class. As President Clinton’s Board of Economic Advisors Chairman Laura D’Andrea Tyson points out, manufacturing is only about 11 percent of gross domestic product, but it employs the majority of the nation’s scientists and engineers, and accounts for 68 percent of business research and development spending, which, in turn, accounts for about 70 percent of total R&D spending…
[I]t is unlikely that Toyota’s leaving will impact the state’s leftward political trajectory. After all, if the New York Times regularly describes the California economy – fattened by stock market and real estate gains of the very rich – as “booming,” why should Gov. Brown, about to run for re-election, say otherwise, proclaiming to anyone who will listen that “California is back.”
True, California may not be in a Depression, as some conservatives contend, but it’s hardly accurate to proclaim the Golden State as back from the brink. But, if having among the country’s highest unemployment rates, the worst poverty levels, based on living costs, and being home to one-third of all U.S. welfare recipients can’t persuade the gentry about California’s true condition, Toyota’s move certainly won’t.